An emcee and a producer continue hip-hop's tradition of collaboration. The result: solid, but not groundbreaking.
Hip-hop is perennially criticized for its many beefs and divisions (of color, class, creed, and coast). Yet, the culture has a kinder, gentler side. There is a component of hip-hop's DNA that I'd like to call The Collaboration Gene. While rappers routinely catalog themselves as "the best", "the dopest", "the illest", "the freshest", and generally appear self-absorbed, sometimes to the point of paranoia, hip-hop is quite democratic. Hip-hop regularly champions the American Dream -- even, and often in spite of, its critique of that ideal -- either through the real life example of a rap star's rise to prominence from meager beginnings or through a song's message (like when 2pac says in the song "Smile", "Here's a message to the newborns, waitin' to breathe / if you believe, you can achieve -- just look at me"). Hip-hop encourages the notion that you can write a hit song, as LL Cool J once said, with a mere hour plus a pen and a pad. I might be the best, these records seem to suggest, but you can do it too.
On top of that, hip-hop is profoundly group-oriented and collaborative. That's part of the reason why a rapper's locale is such a big deal -- being from "Brooklyn" or being a "West Coast gangsta" or a rapper from the "dirty south" is an acknowledgment of group affiliation and shared identity. Hip-hop's focus on groups and collaborations also explains why posses figure prominently in the music and the making of the music. Today's G-Unit is yesterday's Flava Unit, and examples of posses range from NWA's self-branding as "The World's Most Dangerous Group", to the depth and diversity of the Native Tongue Family (composed of groups like De la Soul, Black Sheep, A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School, and Jungle Brothers), and farther back in time to Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation. If you're gonna be a rapper, you've gotta have a posse.
On a more individual level, hip-hoppers relish the chance to collaborate with other artists. It's a rare hip-hop album that fails to include at least one song with a guest rapper or hot hand producer. For instance, this year's release from Mobb Deep, Blood Money, contained 16 tracks, of which no less than half featured guests. Similarly, Lord Jamar's The 5% Album contained 14 full songs (ignoring the skits and interludes) and eight of these showcased guest rappers. The frequency of these collaborations shouldn't surprise us. After all, this is the same art form that gave us classics like the Marly Marl-produced "The Symphony" (featuring Master Ace, Craig G., Kool G. Rap, and Big Daddy Kane) as well as "We Are the World"-styled posse tracks "Self-Destruction" (with rhymes by KRS-One, Stetsasonic, Kool Moe Dee, MC Lyte, Just Ice, Doug E. Fresh, Heavy D, Ms. Melodie, and Public Enemy) and "We're All in the Same Gang" (with rhymes by King Tee, Def Jef, Michel'le, Tone-Loc, Above The Law, Ice-T, Young MC, NWA, Digital Underground, and MC Hammer). The question, then, is whether these collaborations are successful.
That's the context for Main Flow and his dynamic duo collaboration with expert producer 7L on Flow Season. You should already be familiar with 7L's talent. If not, get acquainted with him and his usual partner, Esoteric. This year, 7L and Esoteric released A New Dope, which took a slightly off-center approach to hip-hop. Filled with eclectic beats and eccentric rhymes, A New Dope was different, fresh, and outside the norm. And it was dope.
With that album's influx of inspiration, I added 7L to my wish list of "Producers I'd Like to See in Collaborations", a list that includes Hi-Tek, 9th Wonder, Brickbeats, and the Alchemist, along with high profile board masters like Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, Timbaland, and Scott Storch. My wish list is a matching game of sorts, permitting all types of wild combinations -- of artists, singers, producers and musicians -- like, "Okay, what if you had Sheryl Crow crooning to a Dr. Dre beat, with a guest rap by Busta Rhymes," or "What about a duet between Willie Nelson and Andre 3000, with Carlos Santana on lead guitar, and Cee-Lo Green handling the production."
With those ideas in mind, Main Flow's partnership with 7L won't seem like anything out of the ordinary for hip-hop. Probably because it's not. There's nothing odd about the collaboration at all. Main Flow's rhymes are as solid as his moniker implies. Meanwhile, 7L gives him a backdrop of relatively hard beats punctuated with keyboards and horn sounds. They're not out to reinvent the wheel; they just want to keep it rolling.
At the same time, the reluctance to experiment, particularly with a producer who's willing and capable to do so, may make the project sound too squarely inside hip-hop's usual box. Rappers who are considered "underground" and "independent" often have the enviable position of avoiding what some see as major label formula.
In lieu of experimentation, we get Main Flow's steady and consistent rap skills, which is always a good thing. Don't let the hip-hop videos mislead you. It's wonderful to have cash to toss in the air, a tight crib with four pools and 12 cars, and bikini-clad honeys on each arm, but if you're a rapper, it helps to be able to rap. Having skills isn't a requirement for success, mind you, and some acts have managed to be profitable without skills, but that's not Main Flow's concern. He's got 'em. He's a lyricist who clearly enjoys constructing his verses and creating multi-syllabic rhyme patterns, much like Rakim and Nas. In fact, it's understandable that you might hear Main Flow's style and assume, like the woman he describes in the song "She Like the Way I Talk", that he's from New York.
Wrong. He's claiming Ohio.
Flow Season opens with a DJ-driven intro, but "The Show", the first full track from the album's 14-song roster, is a better prelude to Main Flow's offerings. "The Show", with its title recalling the classic Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh tune, is an inauguration of 7L's beats with Main Flow's rhymes. As the chorus puts it, this album is the "Main Flow and 7L show".
The second full track, "Where I'm From", is more autobiographical. Not only does the song introduce us to Main Flow -- the rhymer and all-around tough guy ("Keep that tough talk comin', yeah, I'm ready to blast") -- it also establishes Main Flow's representation of Cincinnati, Ohio. In this respect, and in his attention to his rhyme patterns and one-liners, the Main Flow and 7L combination reminds me of another duo dropping sounds from that area, Jermiside & Brickbeats and their album, The Red Giants. Main Flow's delivery is less forceful and more understated than Jermiside's, but equally smooth nonetheless.
If the rest of the album followed the lead of the intro and the first two tracks, Flow Season would be a long and arduous trek. Fortunately, the pace quickens with track four, "Hold Lines", a short banger with killer keyboards and a deft beat change. It's also here that Main Flow unleashes his love for similes. Over the course of the album, some of the comparisons work better than others, ranging from somewhat amusing to pretty clever. Examples from the lower end of the scale appear in "Recipe", a song of infatuation, wherein Main Flow skillfully takes the concept of personal flare and flavor to the culinary level. There, Main Flow throws in a couple of lame comparisons; you know, comparisons to J. Lo's backside or making the mundane association between Biggie Smalls and his line, "Gimme one more chance". On the more clever side, "She Like the Way I Talk", the inverse of "Recipe" (the ladies are interested inhim), he brings amusing lines like, "I'm single like a dollar bill". Nevertheless, his strength lies in his straightforward wordplay, keeping the witticisms to a minimum.
Along those lines, "Forever", featuring Queensbridge, New York emcee Cormega, is one of the best songs on the disc. As you might expect, Main Flow's style is similar enough to Cormega's to make the collaboration a snug fit, yet it's strong enough and distinctive enough to hold its own. Likewise, "No Gangsta", which sounds like a gun catalog with its descriptions of Main Flow's artillery and firepower, is another example of no-frills lyricism assisted by 7L's melancholy background. Content-wise, I'm tempted to believe the song is tongue-in-cheek; it's not promoting gunplay, but rather sketches a verbal caricature of the "gangsta" mindset. Anybody can own or possess a gun, Main Flow seems to say, but that's not all there is to it.
My favorite tune is "Top Scholars", where Main Flow is joined by 7L's pal, Esoteric. The production by 7L is on point, complete with the horn sounds he employs on much of the release, while Main Flow and Esoteric bring their lyrical A-games. Main Flow rhymes:
We pop bottle tops, wallow with top models
and model autos be off the throttle with money just like the lotto
And, a few bars later:
So confess when you're losin',
'Cause I'm the best when you're choosin'
You need a vest when you're cruisin'
F*ck up your chest from the bruisin'
This is definitely liver
Show me your girl and I'll bribe her
Black MacGyver, take out that driver
Plus that passenger rider -- BANG
Flow Season's main drawback is that there aren't enough moments like "Top Scholars" and "Forever". This is curious, considering the collaborative context I outlined earlier, because these two songs are the highlights and are two out of only three tracks that feature guests vocalists. While "Hold Lines", "No Gangsta", and "She Like the Way I Talk" are well executed, they don't represent Main Flow at his best. Others, like "Permission to Speak" and "Re-Up" are lyrically forgettable. By contrast, even though the last track, "The Stack Up", featuring Whosane and the Grouch, works great lyrically, 7L's grand orchestration threatens to overshadow everyone's vocals.
In the end, Flow Season is a promising work that, while it doesn't completely satisfy or operate outside of established genre guidelines, gives us something to look forward to from a notable emcee.