Check this out: a solid hip-hop album about life, love, and God (and it's not corny).
I'm not sure why emcee and producer Theory Hazit calls his album Extra Credit. Maybe he chose it to emphasize the scholastic theme at the midpoint of the album, populated with tunes like "Dumb Dunces" and "After School Special". According to the title track, the Kentucky native (but Cincinnati, Ohio resident) and his crew are willing to "go the extra mile", but that's not much of an explanation, is it? You get "extra credit" for going "the extra mile"? That's a tad awkward. I felt a similar incongruence with the title of E-40's 2006 release My Ghetto Report Card, another academically relevant title, except I chuckled at the idea of hustlers earning high marks for exhibiting street knowledge. Hmm…could it be "extra credit" for living a "good" life?
In the end, my advice (to you and for myself) is to avoid overanalyzing it. Theory Hazit has crafted a solid LP and that ought to be enough. If you're looking for something to admire, Theory Hazit's got quite a bit here to hold your interest, from the variety of his subject matter to the intensity of his delivery. Further, the album does a good job with its thematic sequencing, which helps to compensate for a couple of the weaker tracks. If you break the album's 15 songs into three sections (with five songs in each section), Extra Credit's design becomes apparent. So let's take it from the top.
Section One (Tracks 1-5): The Background
The first section introduces you to the person and the emcee known as Theory Hazit, whose last name could be interpreted as "has it" (as in, "Theory Has It") or, if you say it fast and slangy, as "hazard". Regarding the former ("has it"), Theory the Emcee does indeed have "it", if by "it" we mean "skills". The man can rhyme, without question, a little like pre-Like Water for Chocolate Common, but actually a whole heck of a lot like a one-man Leaders of the New School, especially in terms of his flow, his vocal arrangements, and his school motifs. Go back to the Leaders album A Future Without a Past, and then take Busta Rhymes out of the line-up. That would leave you with emcees Charlie Brown and Dinco D -- and you'd pretty much have Theory Hazit in a nutshell. That's not a bad thing, given that Leaders of the New School were a fine group in the '90s. As I remember it, when Leaders of the New School joined A Tribe Called Quest for the song "Scenario", Busta Rhymes impressed a lot of people, but Charlie Brown wasn't that far behind. In hindsight, I suppose Busta Rhymes did all right for himself.
But back to "it", and whether or not Theory has "it" -- the "it" could also refer to "faith". The opening track, "Lesson in Power", introduces us to Theory Hazit's religious convictions, with Theory's hype man exclaiming, "We're about to take over the nation…in fact, take over the world with the power of God!" Meanwhile, over a clap-happy beat with a choir-style vocal sample, Theory testifies to the power of God, though not quite as smoothly as LL Cool J did on Mama Said Knock You Out's "Power of God". Theory credits this power with allowing him to ignore disses and being able to maintain a respectful attitude where he might have otherwise taken a less constructive approach. He also says the power allows him to rock microphones "in secular venues" along with acts like the RZA, Masta Ace, and CunninLynguists (that last band name has always packed a wallop).
So what's the verdict? Is it preachy? Absolutely, and there are religious references sprinkled throughout the album, though not in the apocalyptic manner of, say, Killah Priest's The Offering. But what's important, and impressive, is how passionate he sounds about his beliefs. You get the feeling he's being sincere. The only downside is that there are times when passion can sound like defensiveness. In the title track, for instance, he rhymes:
You can get rich or die tryin' all your life
Or you can die tryin' to live eternal with Christ
Don't try to front on me, like I live a "white man's religion"
The Word hit Africa before America existed
In this verse, he's anticipating an argument that his audience may not even be raising. It's a bit curious to be so defensive, too, when you consider the spirituality of social protest in the U.S. slave songs and Negro spirituals, the missionary zeal of Nat Turner's rebellion, and the rock solid faith of a freedom fighter like Fannie Lou Hamer. Besides, in the context of his music, Theory Hazit highlights examples of religion as a positive influence in his life, which makes it more of a personal thing, not a political thing, and on that personal level, it's hard to argue with his individual testimony -- if he says Jesus changed his life, who's to say otherwise? His perspective might not work for me, but that doesn't invalidate his experience. That's the beauty of everyone having his or her own opinions and viewpoints.
If he's a believer and he's going to make songs about it, I say go with it, full blast and without shooting down potential counterarguments. I'd also like to see it done without setting up the "get rich or die trying" mantra as his foil. Hip-hop, in my opinion, is big enough to accommodate a variety of belief systems and cultures. Last year, in reviewing Lord Jamar's The 5% Album, we discussed the ideology of the Five Percenters (the Nation of the Gods & Earths) and the NG&E's contributions to hip-hop. This year, hip-hop has continued to be geographically diverse (check out U.K. emcee Dizzee Rascal on Maths + English and, depending on how you classify it, M.I.A.'s Kala) and culturally eclectic (you've gotta hear SoCalled's Ghettoblaster and the black-love/brown-pride handiwork from Latino brothers Brandon Allday and Medium Zach of Big Quarters). There's space for a multitude of religious viewpoints. If there isn't, we need to make room, as hip-hop has thrived on incorporating all sorts of elements into its corpus. One of the reasons I love hip-hop, and music in general, is the ease with which ideas can be shared and consumed.
As an intro to Theory's rapping, "Lesson in Power" is adequate, but the second track, "Gossip Synopsis", is where the album really heats up, as he gets busy with quick-footed rhythm and bass. Similar in subject to Lil' Kim's "Shut Up, B*tch" (i.e. people spreading rumors and needing to hush), Theory playfully goes after the haters, letting the gossipmongers chatter on the breaks about his "secular" outings and other random speculations about his career. "Gossip Synopsis" is one of the best cuts on the LP, with Theory dropping lines like, "I got so much style, you thought 'Theory Hazit' was a group".
Rounding out the first third of Extra Credit: "Mrs. Hazit", a cute ditty for the type of lady who should be in Theory's life, garnished with a slightly awkward piano sample and stabbing drumbeats; "Emit Gninrut" (or "Turning Time" backwards), a clever back-in-the-day song in desperate need of a more potent hook (anything -- even no hook at all -- would have been better); and "I Just Wanna Go Home", a dedication to hard times and life lessons with an R&B vibe that works really, really well. The R&B hooks on this album are among the smoothest you'll hear this year. Whether that's a good thing or not is up to you; I know some hip-hop purists who despise R&B in their hip-hop.
When it comes to illustrating spirituality, a tough luck tune like "Home" is more effective than a rap sermon like "Lesson in Power", largely because "Home" paints a picture that allows listeners to become engaged with the scenarios depicted and to draw their own conclusions. Theory Hazit should definitely do more joints like this.
Section Two (Tracks 6-10): Extra Credit
The second section is way more fun. Rather than rehashing the subjects of the first section, Theory works an academic angle, very much like the Leaders of the New School album I mentioned earlier. Where Leaders of the New School gave us tracks such as "Case of the P.T.A." and "Teachers, Don't Teach Us Nonsense" (along with "Homeroom", "Lunchroom", and "After School" skits), Theory Hazit has "Dumb Dunces", "Extra Credit", "Hello Kiddeez", "T Minus Ten", and "After School Special". In the hard jamming "Dumb Dunces", a track that recalls the vibe of the Hieroglyphics crew, Theory's school references help him build his metaphor depicting rap as a type of classroom, using class presidents, class clowns, and milk mustaches to drive it home. He even adds a few TV references for good measure: "Bless my opponent before I eat / Saved by the Bell, politic with Lark Voorhies" and "I Fred Flinstone these Barney Rubbles to Bedrock". Anybody who can work Ms. Voorhies into a rhyme gets mad props from me.
"Hello Kiddeez" and "After School Special" are the big winners in Section Two, with "T Minus Ten" and its jingling background as a close second. "Hello Kiddeez" shows Theory as a caring father, addressing his rhymes not only to his own children, but building a caring relationship with his stepson. It's a well-written song that balances realism with sentimentality; I just wish it had a title better suited to its maturity and sophistication.
I'm also hoping the song doesn't get blown out of proportion. When people hear a rapper speaking on "normal", "everyday" occurrences -- like staying away from drugs, keeping a steady job, or being a good parent -- commentators sometimes respond with shock, like rappers and people who listen to hip-hop are completely incapable of exercising common sense. As a result, there's a tendency to throw shine on mediocre records with "good messages", which really shouldn't be happening if we're being honest about the music.
I'll have you know that some of us actually do stay away from drugs, take care of our kids, and treat our significant others with respect -- but nobody's supposed to be getting a cookie for that. That's just decent, responsible behavior. So, no, I'm not giving extra credit for that either. Here, though, Theory Hazit scores points for craftsmanship as well as message, making the record well worth any shine it gets. Meanwhile, "After School Special" sends Theory into Big Daddy Kane territory, riding a "R-A-W"-like instrumental with sublime confidence. Really, really cool.
Section Three (Tracks 11-15): The Neighborhood
In this section, the songs focus on Theory's surroundings and specific situations -- broken loyalties ("I.O.U."), societal maladies and corruption in politics (the deceptively upbeat "Just Another Day"), grown-up choices ("Decisions"), traces of empowerment ("Out with a Bang"), and tales from the inner city ("Ghetto"). The samples are more soul-oriented in this third of the album, providing an elegant match to Theory's lyrics.
Substantively, there isn't much here that will surprise you -- I mean, basically, he's saying things are bad in the 'hood, and society in general is experiencing moral and spiritual decay. Of the three sections, perhaps this is the weakest of the bunch, as I didn't care much for the crooked, off-kilter piano sample in "Ghetto", but this is mostly because these tales of woe are rather mundane for a rap album. It's bad out here, and spirituality holds the answers -- we get it. On the plus side, however, the group effort "Decisions" features delectable verses from Shawnee Boy, Kadija, Sivion, and Holmskillit, and "I.O.U." is quite a banger with a special helping of introspection.
Given the overall gloom of the subject matter, I probably would've preferred the album sequence to go in reverse: start with this section's tales from the 'hood, go through the educational and scholastic phase in the middle, and then end with Theory's personal background and spirituality. That would have mimicked an individual's actual growth, as well as ended the album on its highest, most optimistic note. But, hey, everybody wants to coach the game after it's over, right?
Don't let Theory Hazit's G-rated language (no, that's not "G" for "gangsta") and "wholesome" image fool you into sleeping on this cat. There's more to this album than a bunch of NAACP-friendly tracks. It gets a little preachy in spots, coughs up a couple of lazy hooks, and has a few letdowns in production, but, overall, Theory's wicked flows and saintly vibes offer a solid combo.