Libretto takes Coolio's funk revival and gives rise to slum funk, a sound heavily influenced by the Stylistics and the Delfonics.
In 1994, Dr. Dre's stepbrother, Warren G, dropped an album saturated with g-funk, a sound that allowed the West Coast to tighten its stranglehold on rap. But it was Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage", a track undulating with the rhythms of '70s funk that invited everyone to join the ride. Ten years later, another MC, raised in Watts and coming straight outta Portland, Oregon, has set out on a funk-filled trip with positive rhymes that refresh the spirit like a glass of ice water on a humid day -- couple that with this collection of energetic tracks and invite everyone you know to come along and ride on this update of the fantastic voyage.
Ill-Oet: The Last Element's first song ("Slum Funk") opens with a hiccupping, staccato rhythm -- a shoulder-shaking jam oozing with Portland's interpretation of g-funk. The beats resemble a Cadillac low-rider gyrating down the Crenshaw strip -- they bounce, bop, and drop it like it's hot over the course of the track and the entire album. Where this album differs from the long-running monotony of gangsta braggadocio is that Libretto doesn't sound like he's going to cap you and throw your body in the trunk. Instead, the album borrows its overall theme from the video for "Fantastic Voyage". If you've never seen the video, it opens with Coolio sitting at home wondering what to do with his day. Suddenly, this fairy mother-funker appears and presto a low-rider with a trunk built to hold as many diverse people as he possibly can fit into it for a trip to the beach. You don't have to be ghetto or bourgeoisie, all he asks is that you want to funk.
Libretto's West Coast swagger lacks the thug posture of a Westside Connection or Dr. Dre and yet, even as he acknowledges the poverty that has enslaved his neighborhood, his outlook and flow remain urgent and optimistic. Get lost in "Dirty Thang"'s galloping grooves as Libretto spits a conscious flow that sheds light on the plight of the inner city. Each instrumental draws heavily upon the nostalgic sound of black soul, particularly the Delfonics and the Stylistics, as if each producer was Quentin Tarantino compiling the Jackie Brown soundtrack.
On a purely instrumental level, this album has libido. It's amazing to hear those funk/soul harmonies of old reinterpreted and re-contextualized by an MC raised on hip-hop's syncopated beats and rhymes. Peppered with back in the good ole day references, Ill-Oet is a head-banging, foot-stomping affair, and a little Ron Isley thrown into the mix doesn't hurt. Bulging with emotion, the jubilant trumpets raise "Back Door Heaven" high above the streets and nearly all the tracks capture that same spirit -- one of hope. His flow is nostalgic without sounding aged, smooth without sounding cavalier, and his laid-back delivery glides effortlessly alongside the beat. The result is a drive by shooting, an accurate and snapshot of ghetto life that makes you want to investigate rather than turn a blind eye.
Libretto isn't the wittiest MC, but he's an adept lyricist whose flow meshes well with the beat and this makes the music utterly enjoyable. Wrapping his lyrics around George Clintonesque interpolations of Atomic Dog and samples of Cameo's uniquely distorted voice, he rekindles rap's playful spirit -- one bereft of the savage nihilism that rose to prominence in the early '90s.
"Volume" teams Quannum's Lifesavas with Libretto over an irregular heartbeat instrumental. A sticker on the album's cover labels it a hip-hop classic. Now, I wouldn't go that far for one reason. A classic means that a song has so permeated popular culture that it will resonate in their memories. It's unclear whether this song or this album has done that. Maybe these words will convince others to give it a chance to do that because Libretto delivers enough slum funk to make any trunk jump.