It might not blow mainstream listeners away, but Haiku's breezy, thoughtful new album should please independent hip-hop fans.
If he is anything, Haiku is ambitious. On the second track of his sophomore and latest release, Blew, the Chicago-based emcee proclaims that he "ain't rapping just to be another opening act." To carve a niche in the hip-hop world, which is already overflowing with superstars and lesser stars with super-sized egos, is a formidable task. Although Blew shines brightly in spots, it will probably not be enough to propel Haiku to the rap stardom he seeks. In fact, reaching for a goal and never quite achieving it seems to be characteristic of Blew as a whole.
From the beginning of his latest album, Haiku's objective is clear: he is determined to make an album that addresses the spectrum of human experience but is filtered through the concept of being blue. For Haiku, blue is both a color and an emotion, and he incorporates these two meanings of the word into the music and words of the ambitious album. In many ways, Haiku finds success in his effort. Blew is blue in many ways, from the soulful sounds of the synthesized beats to the title imagery of the songs "Betty Blue" and "Dunce Cap Blues", to the general sense of melancholy that pervades the entire album. Despite its eclecticism, Blew is not quite the masterpiece its creator intended it to be. An album's success ultimately rides on its songs, and Blew's are a mixed bag.
Haiku's sound is full of trade-offs. The emcee is sure-footed, but he's not really daring. His flows are tight but predictable, and his lyrics are solid but rarely stunning. Overall, the album lacks moments that demand attention. As the album develops, Haiku seems to grow more confident, and he delivers his rhymes with a commanding presence. Early in the album, though, he occasionally has the tendency to fade into the background.
The background into which Haiku fades is a mix of drum machine beats and synthesized instruments. What sounds cold and computerized on paper is actually warm and groovy. With his artificial instruments, producer Midas Wells at times unleashes strings that bring to mind a '60s soul record, and at other times delivers high-speed vocal samples that recall Kanye West. Unlike West's production, though, Wells's work lacks orchestral richness. The synthesized beats on Blew occasionally sound thin and don't really help Haiku establish himself as a major presence on the mic. Nevertheless, the production suits the music well and is a welcome change from the thudding bass-driven beats and chirpy electronics that so frequently dominate hip-hop albums.
Haiku wants to be a serious rap star; ironically, he is at his best when he's not taking himself seriously. The playful "Pendulum Head", which pokes fun at the indecisiveness of head-bobbing hipsters, is the perfect synergy between Haiku's and Wells's styles. Though Blew contains plenty of barbs directed at the efforts of untalented rappers, Haiku cuts deepest when the emcee minds his own business and cuts loose on tracks like "Karmic Epiphany". He also has a real talent for handling chilled tempos, and he demonstrates that gift on "Wanting to Want It" and "Somatosed". Not every Haiku track is a winner, but those that are provide compelling reasons to check out Blew.
Is Blew a success? Not necessarily if Haiku's criteria are the only ones used to answer that question. It is not a concept album masterpiece, and it will probably not propel the emcee to superstar status. Fame isn't everything, though. Despite its inconsistency, Blew has some very high points, which suggest that Haiku has the potential to make the masterpiece he wants to. All he needs is experience to match his lofty ambitions. In the meantime, although Blew won't convert rap haters into fans, it does provide quality material for seasoned hip-hop fans. The album might not merit an immediate purchase, but it does deserve attention for fans of quality independent music.