For a band whose name should imply otherwise, Swollen Members' latest album is oddly flaccid.
Just because hip-hop is independent of the trappings of major labels, it isn't necessarily a guarantee of quality. Swollen Members have produced the latest proof of such a statement, an album called Black Magic that's almost well-produced and slick enough to fool you into thinking it's a fantastic album. The problem is, it's not. Not quite.
On first listen, however, it sounds amazing.
The production is tight. Mad Child and Prevail play off of each other like they've been doing it for years (which they should, because they have). The guests are generally solid. And there's a unity to the album that makes it sound like an album, not just a bunch of songs that Mad Child, Prevail, and third Member-slash-producer Rob the Viking decided to put on a compact disc. Really, it sounds like one of those little underground treasures that you're almost unwilling to share with anyone for fear of widespread acceptance killing some of the magic. So you listen to it again...
...and the Magic disappears all on its own.
You see, it's on that second listen that the holes start to show, the warts lose some of their makeup and become those prominent little blemishes that you just can't, hard as you may try, take your eyes off of. You start to get tired of lines like "Contortionists, swallowers of knives and fire-eaters / Nonconformist performers that wont change, and I won't either" (from the title track) and "I'm higher than Hendrix when he made 'Purple Haze' / I'm amazed / As long as i got herb to blaze" (from "Dynamite"), lines that betray a sort of self-absorption that rappers all too often fall into. By the time you hear Mad Child's hook from "Pressure" ("You can see me on the top / You can see me when we drop / You can meet me on the block we'll stop and talk...") for what seems like the 20th time, it's understandable to be wishing he'd just get it over with and join up with Crazy Town where he belongs.
Now, that's not totally fair, Mad Child actually has some rhyming ability and shouldn't really be mentioned in the same sentence as Shifty Shellshock. Still, the point remains -- the dude just gets annoying after a while, his nasal delivery and constant self-aggrandizement slowly turning from pleasant distraction to nails on a freaking chalkboard as the album continues. It gets to the point where Prevail actually sounds better than he really is (and he's not bad), just because the sound of his voice (not to mention that of guest Ghostface Killah on the excellent "Weight") is such a relief.
The production duties are largely taken care of by Rob the Viking, who does a fine, if unspectacular job. He's very good at setting a mood, allowing the rhymes to take center stage, but still adding melody to the beats backing those rhymes up -- his production on tracks like "Grind" and "Massacre" keep things moving, pushing forward, never over-the-top, but never too laid-back. He's one of the best constantly-mid-tempo producers I've ever heard, so if that's your thing, he's your guy.
Still...the first single from the album is a song called "Put Me On", and Everlast pops by to sing the hook in that gruff Everlast sort of way, and Prevail and Mad Child rap about...well, something or other, and it's all over in four minutes. That's what you remember about it, and that's what you remember about most of the tracks on Black Magic -- they're fine (at least for a while, until Mad Child fatigue sets in), but so what?
That said, Black Magic is still a step in the right direction for Swollen Members after the embarrassment that is Heavy (an album the group won't even bother acknowledging on its web site). In a sense, they're back, back to the sound that got them the audience that shifted so many units in their home country of Canada, back to sounding like they have something to prove, rather than complacently sounding like they've arrived. Now, they just need to take that sound and actually prove something.