The re-release of Wordsworth's 2004 debut proves that syndication might work for television, but it won't do for hip-hop. It's better to make new mistakes than to keep repeating old ones.
Here's a riddle for you. In 2004, Wordsworth, the Brooklyn-bred alumnus of MTV's Lyricist Lounge, released his debut album, Mirror Music. On the 25th of April 2006, Mirror Music debuts again. How is this possible?
Well, if you believe the official answer, it's because Mirror Music was such a critical success that fans and DJs demanded a reissue of the 2004 "classic". Happy to oblige, Halftooth Records came up with Mirror Music: The Deluxe Edition, a double-disc package consisting of the original 20-song album plus a special bonus CD of remixes. If you order from Halftooth's website while supplies last, you can also get a CD of instrumentals from the bonus CD.
I, however, am a lover of conspiracy theories. So far, I haven't found an "official explanation" that I couldn't dispute.
Along those lines, there's an unofficial answer floating around, which is actually just my unsubstantiated hunch. And it goes a lil' somethin' like this (hit it!). The "been there, heard that" effect of Wordsworth's debuted-again status has more to do with simple economics than with popular demand. Mirror Music, in its original incarnation, was not a "classic". Far from it. Unable to sell all the units, the label was faced with a warehouse full of albums. It didn't take the company long to realize that there are only so many uneven tables you can balance out with leftover CDs. And you know what "they" say -- when the going gets tough, the tough start marketing. Actually, nobody says that, but it happens all the time in business, especially when companies seek to generate revenue by adding a twist to an old product, as if a "fresh lemony scent" will keep you from noticing your "new and improved" detergent's just the same old product in a new container.
With this re-release, the special bonus CD containing Oddisee's Mirror Music remixes is the fresh lemony scent. Actually, the whole project might be the sonic equivalent of the pet rock.
Let's be real. Revisiting the same album as a "limited edition deluxe package" doesn't make the songs better or the production stronger. Wordsworth put together 20 tracks worth of words for Mirror Music, but he didn't translate his wit and wordplay into memorable tunes. You could, like some reviewers, blame it on the lackluster and uninspired beats and, sure, you'd be partly right. There are tracks in the set with so little pizzazz you wonder how they made the cut in the first place. Production-wise, songs like "12 Months", "One Day", and "Run" demonstrate the monotony of the album's sound. With minimal breakdowns, chord changes, or bridges, Mirror Music falls short musically. That, however, is not the whole story. So riddle me this: if wack beats alone aren't enough to turn a stack of Wordsworth's CDs into a set of coasters, then what's the explanation?
The answer, and the responsibility, rests with Wordsworth himself. First, he often drops his vocals like he's not motivated. It's as if the zombies from Michael Jackson's Thriller video crawled out of their tombs to perform the hooks. Maybe zombies would have seemed more stoked and animated. Plus, his layered vocals and apathetic delivery sap energy from the effort, rendering the songs bland and nondescript. At times, you want to reach into the stereo, grab him by the shoulders, and yell, "Hey! Wake up!" He's dropping rhymes on some heady and heartfelt topics. Yet, whether he's lamenting the state of the world ("What We Gon' Do") or pondering the existence of supernatural bodyguards ("Guardian Angels"), his voice rarely, if ever, conveys the appropriate emotion. In "Shoulder", when he says, "If you feel everyone's against you and no one's on your side/ You can use my shoulder to cry", the offer doesn't seem sincere. It sounds more like he's reading from a page of lyrics written by someone else. This is a far cry from the Wordsworth who rocked the mic with Mos Def and Talib Kweli on Black Star's "Twice Inna Lifetime". That's the guy I wish they would reissue.
Nevertheless, these are his verses, and while he certainly can, and did, fill the front and back of his foldout album cover with lyrics, there's more to songwriting than churning out words. There's the arrangement, for starters. And, in hip-hop, there's the ever-important hook. A rap song's hook is its lifeline, the string to its balloon; without it, the song loses its anchor and floats into obscurity. When it comes to writing verses, Wordsworth can construct plenty of rhymes, even when he carries a single rhyme scheme across several lines, as he often does. But instead of tying his verses together with a catchy hook or a well-placed sample, he chants his way through the choruses. That's the second problem with Music Mirror. Most of the hooks are basically just extended refrains that are undifferentiated from regular verses. Not only does this cause the songs to sound alike but, by the end, the album sounds less like a collection of songs and more like a set of paragraphs in a rhyming term paper.
Luckily, there are exceptions. For instance, "Don't Go" works as a song because it departs from the chant-as-chorus formula, opting instead for a female voice to bring the chorus, "Don't go anywhere you don't know", along with samples from Notorious B.I.G. ("I live out there, so don't go there") and Guru of Gang Starr ("You wish that you could come into my neighborhood"). Likewise, "Unity" enhances its message by showcasing Meleni Smith's sultry vocals on the breaks. Meanwhile, the bonus track "On Your Feet" proves that a hook can be successful without being complicated -- just yell "On your feet!" Sometimes simplicity is best.
On the flipside, there's the second disc, packed with bonus music. Oddisee, who produced "Gotta Pay", "Head High", and "Gonna Be" on the original album, presents a 10-song album of remixes. As a separate project, Oddisee has also released a compilation called The Remixture - Volume 1, in which Oddisee adds his creative touch-ups to songs by such musical heavyweights as The Fugees, Michael Jackson, Organized Konfusion, and Mos Def. In the case of Mirror Music, Oddisee's work was mostly mediocre, and chances were good that the newer remixes wouldn't be appealing either.
As it turned out, Oddisee's disc saves the day. He must have analyzed the weaknesses in the original and devised a strategy for overcoming them, including a couple of the songs he produced. Not only does he create better beats -- which will help you endure the old chanting choruses -- he often adds sounds and textures that mimic actual song structure. It's interesting to see how a livelier rhythm track can freshen up a song like "Right Now", or how a breakdown and the high end of a keyboard can give the illusion of a bona fide hook.
The original vocals stayed the same; only the production changed. In my opinion, the Oddisee remixes would have been a stronger debut for Wordsworth. Add a few of the stronger songs from the original, like "Be a man" and "Don't Go", and the project might have received wider rotation. The only downside is that the new beats threaten to drown Wordsworth out completely. That's not good, especially when guest spots by Punchline, Justin Time, Masta Ace, and Oddisee himself are already soaking up the very limited limelight.
All in all, Mirror Music shows Wordsworth's potential, yet fails to provide a satisfying listening experience. There's an incredible tension here, between "what the artist is capable of" versus "what the artist actually demonstrates", between the ambitious concepts driving the songs on the album versus the execution of those concepts. Rather than reviewing old music, fans are probably more interested in whether Wordsworth has resolved that tension in new material. Once he solves that riddle, he's got a shot at a classic.