Two New York producers break out of the boroughs with a full-length debut that's both streetwise and eclectic.
Journalist Thomas Oliphant used his 2005 memoir Praying for Gil Hodges to show how Brooklyn is both a microcosm of the entire United States and a magnet for world culture. In the book, he shares Yale historian Kenneth T. Jackson's assessment that "a quarter of all Americans can trace their ancestry to people who once lived in its (Brooklyn's) 81 square miles". Looking at Brooklyn in this way, as a place that is both an ancestral reference point for millions of Americans and as a destination for people from overseas, is helpful for someone trying to understand the first Team Shadetek full-length album, Pale Fire. The members of Shadetek boast of their connection to the borough, but theirs is not the hip-hop Brooklyn of Jay-Z or Mos Def. Rather; Pale Fire is a global brew with hints of reggae, grime, and electronic flavor.
Team Shadetek is the project of New York-bred producers Soze.sht and Zach Zizmore. Their latest effort features a host of guest artists delivering a wide range of underground hip-hop styles. Over the course of their careers, the producers have toured the world, and Pale Fire bears evidence of their travels. One of the most obvious elements of Team Shadetek's sound is a heavy grime influence. Originally a product of the London underground scene, grime (a hip-hop subgenre dominated by electronic beats and lightning rhymes) has spread via the Internet to appreciative audiences around the world. Aside from Lady Sovereign and Dizzee Rascal, grime artists have yet to make a major impact in America. By including contributions from artists such as Jammer and Skepta, Team Shadetek has not only created a more global hip-hop record, but also made a sort of grime primer for American audiences.
After a brief intro, which is appropriately titled "Tinnitus", Team Shadetek launches into "Brooklyn Anthem", a surefire club hit. Emcees 77Klash and Jahdan deliver hard driving rhymes with a dub flavor over a beat consisting of big bass, twitchy synths, and clattering snares. The party continues after the anthem, thanks first to "Legs" and its singable chorus, "When we get down / Make you get up", and next to "Make It", a track with horn licks and sped-up voice samples ala Kanye West. The rest of the album switches between tracks based on grime, reggae, and more straightforward hip-hop, and it even includes a few instrumental tracks. Highlights from the second half include "Reign" (featuring Skepta) and the electronic "Kalamata".
Sometimes, Pale Fire's wide gaze compromises its focus. The greatest hip-hop albums are unified artistic statements. By contrast, Pale Fire lacks cohesion. Musical purists might be refreshed by Team Shadetek's aversion to the goofy skits that are so prominent on many hip-hop albums. Although these skits can be distracting, they can also imbue an album with character, a hearty dose of which would improve Pale Fire. As it stands, the album's music seems a little unsure of itself as it passes between the hands of so many guest artists. Besides a lack of focus, Pale Fire suffers from an occasional failure of the beats and flows to gel (see the track "Witchcraft"), and the occasional repugnant lyric, such as "Throw ya guns up / We starvin', we gonna make you give ya funs up" on "Throw Ya Guns Up".
If Team Shadetek's eclecticism compromises its focus, it should at least help the duo appeal to a wide audience. Hip-hop, dub, grime, and electronic fans should all find plenty to enjoy on Pale Fire. Given the right music video, a few of the album's songs might even hold up as singles. Rap and dance fans should keep an eye out for Team Shadetek as the producers continue to distill their worldwide influences into more purposeful music, but for now they can be satisfied with a solid, hard-hitting record.