BBE have chosen this year, not one that will be remembered for its hip-hop classics, to launch their would-be-definitive Beatmasters series. BBE collections carry a good deal of critical weight behind them and the label had hoped to make the same mark in this area that they have done with their rare groove, dance and jazz releases. Reaction has been positive, but hardly ecstatic, although the criticisms raised have been more to do with the genre itself than the individual producers that have been showcased.
This is the third release under the banner (Jay Dee and Pete Rock kicked the project off, a Marley Marl is out now and DJ Spinna, Jazzy Jeff and King Britt are all to follow). The general concept was to give each producer greater freedom than is usual and to concentrate on the beats more than the rhymes. Each artist has interpreted the brief differently. The problem has been that the standard of rapping has not always impressed, yet take the lyricists away and the purely instrumental work (Pete Rock's particularly) has been judged to be somewhat dull. As Will.i.am's set is a mixture of vocal and non-vocal cuts it is probably the most balanced in the series and serves as a pretty good gauge of the strengths and weakness of hip-hop 2001 style.
Of the above mentioned producers, Will.i.am's is probably the least well known and certainly his contribution to rap history hardly matches those of the others involved. For the record, he is the "beat master" behind Black Eyed Peas, that likeable but fairly lightweight California outfit. However, he shows himself more than up to the task and delivers a more boundary-crossing set than might have been expected. Plenty of different forms are represented, including jazz, funk, ragga and electronica, while the lyrical approaches range from fairly hardcore to some old school chant-alongs.
There is an emphasis on live instrumentation, the album's trump card, and had the quality of the rapping been up to that of the playing this would have been a very distinguished venture. Even as it stands, the better tracks are forceful enough to suggest that those who are suggesting that hip-hop is a spent force creatively may be seriously misguided. Perhaps it tries to cover too many bases, but over-stretching is surely more laudable than sticking to a narrow format, something recent material has tended to do.
A breezy opener, "Ev Rehbahdee", featuring current favourites Planet Asia suggests a party, hands-in-the-air session, that is as enjoyable as it is misleading. This has real bounce (although the lyrics are a little tired). Then there is the moody "Lay Me Down" with a vocodered Terry Dexter and a neo-soul feel -- the most complete track on offer and one that should get a wider hearing. The next two are a bit hit and miss. An all too brief cod, rasta-reggae track "Possessions" and a trip-hop instrumental (sitar and rock guitar) give some idea of the wide spectrum of sounds Will.i.am wants to explore but are hardly mind-blowing. Next up, Mike Myers gives "If You Didn't Know" plenty of gangsta attitude and is as dull as that implies. It leads into a catchy, uptempo number, "Money", which is a would be deep message rap that doesn't completely come off. The arrangement, however, is exemplary, with a particularly haunting female chorus and a great horn section. The use of trumpet and sax is a highlight throughout the album. The title track is a good example, having an almost mariachi feel to it but laid over a spacey, electronic groove. Will.i.am shows himself to be a pretty useful Hammond and general keyboard practitioner. It is at this point that you start to realise that this would have been better as an all instrumental project, with maybe the odd backing vocal.
Will.i.am himself, Medusa and Madd Dogg take control of the rhymes for the remaining tracks, with adequate but uninspiring results. Increasingly the words seem to get in the way of some adept playing -- this is a good band. The non-vocal cuts -- "Lost Change" in D and then E Minor, "Yadda Yadda" and the lovely, jazz-drenched "Control Tower" -- all work so well, the redundancy of the rap artists becomes embarrassing. It may be that I have just lost interest in the shouting that makes up most contemporary hardcore rap -- certainly a more laid back set of guests would have helped. Whatever the reason, it is Michael Angelo (bass), George Pijon (guitar)and Printz Board (trumpet) who are the names I'll be checking for in the future and not the MCs.
Ears less troubled by current mike styles will enjoy the CD as a whole. Will.i.am himself is a revelation as arranger and producer. Lost Change certainly is no disgrace to the series, either in its aims or its execution. I just wish there had been at least one outstanding example of the rhymer's art. Still, those who questioned Will.i.am's worthiness to take part in this prestigious and important series will be surprised at the enterprise and craftsmanship he demonstrates. Even though it is flawed, it stands as rebuttal to the argument that hip-hop has lost interest in sounds and structure and is totally about image. There is an exploratory, if somewhat ambling, for-its-own-sakedness on show here. This is something that has characterised this series and, it has to be said, precious few rap offerings in the last 12 months. Persuasive and patchy in about equal proportions, it still makes most mainstream output look crass and opportunistic.