What's that you say, the golden age of hip-hop is over? Maybe, but Detroit's Lawless Element revives it with middling success.
My first thought was to bury this album. Let it rot under the weight of my words, strapped together to express the gist, which is this: Everybody wants to sound like the Good Ole Days. I wanted to attack Lawless Element for keeping their ears pressed to the past. Expose their plot to ape the groups whose music I loved most. But I can't and I won't.
Detroit's Lawless Element don't come anywhere close to deposing the hip-hop that defined the mid-'90s. But, in fumbling for greatness, they get a good grip on what made that music resonate so clearly during my childhood. The golden age reverberates throughout "The Crew", as wave after wave of a sample -- one word from A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip -- hits you. love, Love, LOve, LOVe, LOVE. It's as if Tip's voice visits from the past just long enough to let that one word out. Behind that, the strings sob and some hopped-up Nintendo percussion throbs with the intensity of a strobe "seizure" light.
Holding down production duties on all but two of the album's 12 tracks is Magnif, who uses that breezy, open-air style of production, a style that got dark, sweaty, and claustrophobic when it hit the nightclub. This is the music of someone reminiscing over Pete Rock, but with less trumpets. Magnif's head-nodding beats swim like jazz notes on cruise control. And if Lawless Element were able to craft rhymes as well as Magnif makes beats, they'd have a better chance at capturing mainstream attention. Stand-out tracks include the shimmering sound of the consciousness arousing "...Something", "Love", and "Rules Pt. 2".
The latter is a thick blanket of warm hip-hop, funky xylophone tones, and scratches. Then you got Griot spitting a verse that flows nice but lacks the lyrical punch of Common or Kweli. "Since I flow against the rules / you think we should be outlawed / bout to snatch the food from your mouth dog / I speak what keeps your mind body and soul together / kinda like I control the weather." It's not spectacular vernacular, neither is Magnif's verse for that matter, it just does the job without conjuring up the vivid imagery of a trip to El Segundo or potholes in your lawn.
Madlib, J. Dilla, and Diverse contribute their talents to the effort. Diverse and Dilla pull verse duty on "Love" and "...Something", respectively, while Dilla cooks up "The Shining" into some lost-in-space boom-bap. Madlib outdoes himself with the beat for "High", which is what it gets ya. His drums get the Tourettes Syndrome treatment on "High", stuttering and stumbling around his schizophrenic, jazzed-out rap hybrid from the future.
Lawless Element hugs the aural aesthetic of those fabled years that fell between De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising (1989) and De La Soul's Stakes Is High (1996). For those nostalgic for that era, Soundvision: In Stereo revives the formula, with a well-timed throwback to the boom-bap.