Category: Real Hip Hop

KIDS SEE GHOSTS

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The third release in the Kanye West pentalogy, KIDS SEE GHOSTS serves as a wildly successful (re)union of West and Kid Cudi. The chemistry exudes throughout the album, as Cudi’s emotive howls haunt Kanye’s ghoulish production.  

Operating as the climax in Kanye’s dramatic structure, KSG follows Pusha T’s Daytona energetic sultriness with an honest emotionality absent on ye, Kanye’s expositionary outset.  From the moment “Feel the Love” hits, you know that this is the Cudi/Kanye chemistry you loved on the unexpectedly influential – and excellent –  Man on the Moon I and II. Pusha-T’s verse ensures that the listener is hearing a continued musical creation with the release of these five albums in subsequent fashion.

Coming in at a tidy 24 minutes, the album seethes, emotes, and viscerally envelops the listener. It moves fast, but lingers. The Andre3000 (nee Benjamin)-produced “Fire” literally picks up musical threads from “Feel the Love” and flips into a Kanye verse much different than anything on ye. The words are sharper, the syllables are placed with more exactitude, and the mirroring of voice/track adds a layering more robust than the minimalist ye.

Cudi and Kanye have both expressed mental health challenges and it fuels KSG. The adopted moniker for the duo, KIDS SEE GHOSTS, is appropriate – and the music feeds off of the visualization of the name. “4th Dimension” takes the 1936 Louis Prima single “What Will Santa Claus Say,” features a haunting echo and a spine-tingling bass line that conjure both literal and mental ghosts.

“Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” once again nods to the continuity of This Kanye Project, as Kanye exudes on the the hook “I don’t feel pain anymore/ guess what baby I feel freeeee.”  This harkens back to “Ghost Town” on ye as 070 Shake painfully exclaims “we’re not the kids we used to be/ I put my hand on a stove to see if i still bleed.”

“Reborn” is where we see both Cudi and Kanye at their modern best. “I’m so reborn/ keep movin’ forward” is Cudi’s hook, sung in straight-forward and melancholy fashion, leading right into Kanye’s best verse in a long time:

Very rarely do you catch me out
Y’all done “specially invited guest”‘d me out
Y’all been tellin’ jokes that’s gon’ stress me out
Soon as I walk in, I’m like, “Let’s be out”
I was off the chain, I was often drained
I was off the meds, I was called insane
What a awesome thing, engulfed in shame
I want all the rain, I want all the pain
I want all the smoke, I want all the blame
Cardio audio, let me jog your brain
Caught in the Audy Home, we was all detained
All of you Mario, it’s all a game

Introspective, honest, addressing his demons, cohesive and intelligent. This is the Kanye you love, and the reason why his makeshift effort on ye was such a disappointment. My gut instinct is that there is much more material of this particular nature that was scrapped after the TMZ debacle, but frankly – this verse, and Kanye’s on “Kids See Ghosts” (the track) are more indicative of Kanye doing what he can/should be doing as the King of 21st Century Music.

The title track here features Yasiin Bey (nee Mos Def), whose self-imposed exile in South Africa left a gaping hole in 21st century lyricism. Mos Def always carried gravitas to any project on which he was featured. Bey continues to do so here, with a halting iteration of “Kids See Ghosts sometimes/ spirits moving around/ just moving around (yeah that’s a king)” which hands off into a melodic Cudi verse, which parlays into more hungry, honest – there’s that word again – Kanye. Once again Kanye chooses his words carefully, “ye just going to live up to everything that sucks to you. . .to everybody that said I was better off dead” followed by

Got a Bible by my bed, oh yes, I’m very Christian
Constantly repentin’, ’cause, yes, I never listen
Don’t like bein’ questioned and don’t like bein’ less than
Any a competition in any of my professions

Again, Mr. West at his purest – religious and flawed, hyper self-aware and emotional. Cudi also orates musically what can only be described as “ghostly sounds” that serve to close out the track and evoke the name of the track, album, and duo. Brilliant.

“Cudi Montage” is a very intriguing finish to the album, and veritable transition to Nasir. Using a Kurt Cobain sample from a home recording, Kanye continues to induce spine-tingling in the listener, while figuring out a way to meld the asymmetry of the genres into a work of art.

Because KIDS SEE GHOSTS is essentially a “pop-up” art gallery of music. Kanye West fully intended for his pentalogy to be dissected, discussed, analyzed; criticized & lauded. Here, with KIDS SEE GHOSTS hiding in plain sight as the third of five releases, he gives his effort at brilliance, yet it is intentionally ephemeral. As the sum of all parts, the five albums may not hold up as a classic. But KSG certainly is excellent, and carves out a niche in Kanye’s ultimate pantheon.

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Kanye West and ye: minimalist deflection

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 9.20.37 AMI initially thought that I would wait my prerequisite three months to listen to Kanye West’s new release, “ye” – I typically want the ‘noise’ to subside so I can take an uninhibited, zero-influence approach to an album.

That didn’t quite work out – instead, I spent the weekend listening to “ye” on repeat. As I began to internalize the album more thoroughly, I feel that “ye” is ultimately a strong listen, but falls short in one area where Mr. West usually thrives – genuine honesty.

But why? What is actually going on here?

My initial thoughts after my first listen is that I think Mr. West wants the listener to feel  that he is in a super dark place. Confusion and depression are underlying themes throughout the album – maybe not the “depression” associated with somebody that “lost everything,” but from Kanye branding himself as a great artist/iconoclast and feeling the pressure of living up to that standard.

Perhaps Kanye is exhausted with this role; witness him holing up in Wyoming for this album/ gaining weight/ deleting twitter/ disappearing for about a year. After an unparalleled-so-far-in-the-21st-century string of great critical & commercial albums, he thoroughly knows that “ye” needs to follow in that lineage – he MUST produce a magnum opus.  The fact is, in my mind, Kanye probably just wants to hang up the mic. The “ye” album has elements soul-baring and depth; the music is heavily gospel and spiritual, though not groundbreaking like his previous work. And the length. . .this release is only seven tracks and only 24 minutes, with not one six- seven- or eight- minute track as he is wont to do? Dude is tired.

Upon my my second listening and more mental digestion, my theory expands. I think this album is mea culpa. The music, while minimal, is more labored than I even picked up on during the first listen. While gospel over soul samples with hip-hop beats is his true/primary sound – that’s basically all Kanye is producing here.  Some haunting sounds and Slick Rick sample dot the production, but there is no grandeur. It’s concise musically, but basically Kanye-by-numbers. Lyrically, I perceive a sweeping, general “apology” “for whatever I may have done” – kind of half-assed with nary a desire to be genuinely specific.

Overall, I “like” the album –  but this is the sound of a guy who needs to take about five to 10 years off, though I don’t know he has that in him – or if this is possible in today’s milieu. I also can’t escape the thought that this album is somewhat “making excuses” – but for what? The TMZ zaniness? His MAGA hat? Something deeper?

There is also something very peculiar about the overall “sound” aesthetic: this album lacks the complex, driving drum loops that are Kanye’s hallmark; instead, it contains a distinct minimalism; creative, assertive drum use is basically what made Kanye the producer he is today and though he is an expert at utilizing space and time in his music, he is far from a “minimalist.”

After my third trip through “ye,” I was pretty sure that this album is either a partial album and some sort of marketing tactic (a.k.a. he released Lift Yourself and the underrated Ye vs. the People a month ago yet they are nowhere to be found on the final release). My guess is that this particular “EP” release is a substandard yet well-intentioned attempt to address mental health – though even there, I don’t believe it was fully honest. Specifically, Wouldn’t Leave, No Mistakes, Ghost Town – ironically/intentionally his “gospel” tracks – have the potential to really expound upon his mental state, struggles, ‘the feels,’ but they fall short.

What “ye” does, in my opinion, is speak directly to Kim and their marriage. I stand by my assertion that this is a “mea culpa” – though it still does not feel as if Mr. West is directly apologizing or being fully honest to Kim, or more generally, his family – for the pain he caused/is causing).

Here’s another thing. This is the first time I’ve ever sensed Kanye as disingenuous. There is a willingness and a want to be introspective and extant but there is some albatross holding him back from exposing what he really wants to discover.

Not maliciously disingenuous, or even manipulative – I really, really think he wants to discover something but just isn’t getting there.

Furthermore, indulge me as I throw complete curveball that trivializes all of this – what did I really think when he went nuts on TMZ during that whole brief period? I think he cheated on Kim, or worse, and this last six week period has been an act to deflect addressing his shortcomings in their relationship. Basically he was busted and still can’t confess, and all of this “I’m crazy“ and subsequent half assed apologizing through the release of a short album, calculated erratic behavior/bipolar. . .I do not intend to marginalize any of the mental health things he is addressing but it seems to me that it’s a really, really good excuse – this “ye” album – where he doesn’t need to confess his sins/truth to Kim. I mean, when I was a dark place with my wife, I did all kinds of crazy shit just to deflect from the reality that we were living in which I caused. Didn’t matter who or what was in the way, I would manifest medical issues, excuses, apologize for literally six hours straight, write poems, sing songs, buy gifts, whatever resources I had to avoid talking about the real issues.

I kiiiiiiiiiind of sense there’s an element (or more) of that, on a really hypermediaized (hello, 2018) level.

I’m convinced that the seven songs on “ye” are the “see Kim? I made an album detailing my pain (I Thought About Killing You) our travails (All Mine) and apologizing to you (Wouldn’t Leave) and showing how much I love you (No Mistakes, Ghost Town) and care about our family and children (Violent Crime)” – and-thus are probably not the entire (real) album. There has to be more to this.

UPDATE:  there’s an interview with Big Boy (previously of Power 106 fame, currently with 92.3) where he says he literally “scrapped the entire album”  (after the TMZ fiasco) . This makes sense – the two tracks that were “released“ were both not on the album and sounded nothing like the album. Ironically, Lift Yourself (aka Poopity Scoop) is music wise one of the best tracks he produced this time around and to be honest and not to go more psycho babble on it but he literally might have been in a manic phase had just said “fuck it I making this song for North” because musically that song is straight dope

Lastly, there have been artists and musicians historically that are bipolar and I think there something more with his “acceptance” of it and he’s using it as a crutch like “see Kim I told you I am not right in the head.”

Sidenote: it literally makes me cackle incessantly how the critics literally don’t know how to approach this album including a (solid, but wandering) Pitchfork review.

Again – when my wife was dealing with my utter bullshit for literally three years, it was something new every week that would explain away my bad behavior – “I think I’m having a heart attack” “you have no idea how bad things are at work” “I’m under so much pressure” or literally other bullshit.  If I would have thought of bipolar back then I probably would have used that as an excuse. Which is to be clear, not a trivialization of bi-polar or any mental issues. I just personally think Kanye is using that as a deflection point within his serious personal relationships or introspection and not digging into the ‘real Kanye.’

And that is where “ye,” though enjoyable, is lacking.

 

Ranking eMCees: the Naje Scale

This is a project about 17 years in the making.

I’d previously toyed with methods to rank rappers/eMCees/lyricists, and most efforts were either too simple (who are the dopest rappers!!!) or too complex (in college, I included 14 categories such as ‘heart,’ ‘message,’ etc this was really way too much & too corny).

I want to thank Naje for introducing me to the beautiful simplicity that is the Naje Scale. First off, Naje’s gauge, which encapsulates my view as well:

I know this is a bullshit gauge, but it is always one I refer to. If I feel like I can do what an emcee does then I can go crazy for they’re (sic) work. Like I cannot do what Aesop, or Eminem, or Kweli, or Redman, or El-P does.
completely agree. And that’s basically exactly what I look for in an eMCee. Somebody that exceeds what I think I could do if I gave my life to the craft.
For me, a reformed eMCee with dozens of lousy demo tapes and a current freestyle fetish that’s lasted for 20 years, I included myself on the chart (also, because I have a big ego). I quite realistically overrated myself, but allow me the ego trip on this one.
Without further adieu,  the chart is pretty self-explanatory other than to say the colors represent coastal association.
Red is West Coast
Navy is East Coast (I included Philly/Boston/Long Island)
Baby Blue is Midwest
Green is the Greater South
Brown is Bay Area
Slick Rick is in Black
eMCees that ‘tie’ are included on the same line with a slash. There is no association necessary between the rappers other than to say I deem their skills exactly similar regarding this axis.
Also – rappers such as Eminem and Nas with a widely disparate catalog (I’m looking at you, Oochie Wallie) are essentially averaged on their own work.

Naje Scale

*bold lines represent a 5, or average

I think my ‘favorite’ observation is the logjam of West Coast rappers between 4-5.5 (Skill) and 2-4 Content.
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These are the rappers closest to average in all four quadrants: Jean Grae, Masta Ace & L-Roneous above average in both – but barely:
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Another observation: there is only ONE West Coast guy (and two Bay Area) is above average in both, and it’s Acey – who’s barely over the skill line in my book – otherwise lotta Navy in this (coveted) quadrant.
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In short, I’m sure there are criticisms, critiques and methodology concerns. It’s all conversational and in fun. . .and I do tend to value awesome, awesome flow. It’s one of the dopest things in the world.

 

Cannibal Ox, Live at Los Globos Los Angeles October 8th

I was enough to score tickets to Cannibal Ox last week, at the Los Globos venue in Silverlake.

Was an interesting venue, as
“who are you here to see” “Cannibal Ox” 
led us “upstairs and to the left.” 
I mean, that’s something you see when your buddy’s band has a show at the local open-mic spot.
We head upstairs and there’s some deep house pounding our souls. “Where’s the hip hop? Where’s Can O, or an opening act?” We look left at an empty dance floor and a stage. “That can’t be it. . . there’s about 30 cats. Total.” Sure enough, we see a guy that looks like Blake Griffin rapping – no wait, he’s singing – on stage, who was followed by another rap duo, all the while getting kind of drowned out by the deep house, which is coming from the room upstairs on the right, a poorly situated layout that was beyond amateur.
CanOx
But perhaps this could have been portended by the (rundown, somewhat scuzzy) venue itself, or the fact that the day before CanOx was in Santa Cruz. . .where was the promotional team here? Where is the drawing power of arguably the 21st century’s most influential hip hop act? Is the L.A. ‘scene,’ even amongst heads, that dreary?
Regardless, after suffering through one more rap act and then two additional, individual rappers – one of who was kind of dope, frankly (“Double A.B”) – before Cannibal Ox hits the stage.
I turnaround as the venue has surely filled in by now, 11:48 PDT on a Thursday. . .yep, there are 50, maybe 60 heads in the audience. The sounds of Cold Vein permeate the speakers and Vast Aire takes over the stage and the venue. For a minute, I had chills. I was not able to see them perform during their ephemeral peak, so I’m glad I could check them off to my personal HH bucket list. Vast is killing it on the mic and – hey, why are these white rappers staying on stage with them? Is that Double A/B guy actually rapping Vordul’s lines? How is any of this okay with CanOx? 
In studying Vordul, it’s clear he’s either under the influence – heavily – or sedated beyond belief. I’d heard rumors of both drug use and homelessness due to drug use, and where there’s smoke there’s fire. . .and this was definitely gasoline pouring out of his shoes. Which moved maybe a combined five feet over the course of the next half hour. Now we all know hip hop is questionable at times live; it’s tough to create that visceral, ‘live’ experience without instruments. So it’s generally dudes calling for response while marching back and forth across the stage. Not Vordul. . .he was literally catatonic. Most alarmingly, at two points he missed his mark to start a verse; one time he started a verse over; one other instance (Metamorphosis), he needed his verse finished for him by said rapper.
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It was like watching a paternal boxing manager (Vast) trying to shield his younger, punch-drunk son from further embarrassment, but continuing to trot him out there because of the yearning for income, reputation, action, or the fact that there is nothing else.
None of this is shocking, but it’s worth noting. I’m including three snippets, some showing the good some showing the bad:
*’Coming on to the Stage” which was pretty dope https://youtu.be/Agyp6-KPN0s
*”Iron Rose” where you can see the depths of Vordul’s despair https://youtu.be/6n7BsxqwPO0
*general Can Oxxing https://youtu.be/l7SEBF9X9bw
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I am extremely happy to have seen the show. I’m nonplussed by Vordul, though I’m pretty certain what I saw was the real deal. I can’t find any reviews anywhere on Vordul’s performances on this latest tour – and as my cohort said, he was able to at least record his lyrics for the album – but it’s pretty clear there are issues beyond belief with everything from the organization to the execution of the group.

 

Beat Street Beginnings

well, hopefully this video doesn’t get taken down:

yeah, beat street (king of the beat), featuring mel, flash and the furious five in their coked-out 80’s best.
why post this corny-hooked yet lyrically competent track randomly? because i was thinking about my first. the first hip hop/rap song that ever resonated with me. i remember vividly being in washington d.c. at the l’enfant hotel (paid for by the state of california per my pops’ expense account as a computer audit specialist), where my parents allowed me to buy two cassette tapes during our trip in 1986:
Run DMC, Raising Hell
-and-
Beat Street, Vol. I
I bought the first because the track ‘You Be Illin” had somehow crossed my eight-year old radar. Beat Street? To this day, I have no idea why I picked that lavender-hued soundtrack to a movie I’d never heard of, much less seen.
Regardless, I still bump a random Run DMC album in tribute bi-annually, including, but none of their material really defined my life. That said, this Grandmaster track, this ‘classic’ hip hop sound, this cliched rhyme scheme, this ‘raise your hands in the air’ call & respond somehow was the FIRST track that literally put me on to hip hop. The scratch to the break to the authoritative rhyme style. . .damn, man. It still hits me. All seven minutes. . .enjoy.

beatstreet

Beat Street Breakdown, Raah!

Nasty Star

I was listening to some post-his-prime Nas today (particularly the track ) and was really trying to articulate just WHY this man is the most aesthetically pleasing lyricist of all-time.
*Again, I want to be clear that with Nas, specifically post- It Was Written & a couple tracks on I Am, we know content is basically out of the equation.
*

http://bizzyblanco.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/nas_officer_jacket.jpg

I think it comes down to these key elements of flow:
1) Nas’ ability to deftly & precisely maintain a high syllabic content line for line is difficult, if not impossible to emulate, while still holding a normal cadence. Take this line on verse 2 on the Nasty track:
Silent rage, pristine in my vintage shades
I’m not in the winters of my life or the beginner stage, I am the dragon
As a former eMCee who has attempted to mimic all kinds of eMCees doing all kinds of flows, a line like this – potentially awkward timing, a ‘line after line’ (line 2) element and a rhyme prior to restarting a new rhyme are all factors that can throw an eMCee off his smooth train. Not so with Nas.
2) as John Wooden says, “be quick, but don’t hurry.” Play this segment, also in Verse 2, and note the difficult complexity of what he’s doing here – again, many words/syllables but nothing forced. He let’s the rhyme come to him, and with this kind of structure that’s near impossible.
Past nasty now, I’m gross and repulsive
Talk money, is you jokin’? Cash everywhere, in my bank, in the sofa
In the walls, in the cars, in my wallet, in my pocket
On the floors, ceiling, the safe, bitch
I got all you envy, but don’t offend
I’m skinny, but still I’m too big for a Bentley
You are your car, what could represent?
Too Godly to be a Bugatti, you honestly
Must design me somethin’ Tommy Mottonic from Queens had before the ’90s

3) Nas maintains a conversational tone while flowing. VERY underrated factor, and something many eMCees just can’t avoid (Eminem most obvious, M.O.P., Pharoahe Monche, etc). I personally think there’s a time & place for screaming/singing/etc (again, whole other discussion), but the smooth vocals of just. . .conversation. . .are what make Nas’ flows so aurally pleasing.

Also, Nas = Stephon Marbury?
https://i0.wp.com/sohhdotcom.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/2008/07/23/nas20080703300x300.jpg      https://i2.wp.com/davissportsdeli.com/podcasts/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/196_8d8106b40308ad5034a98a01b5c66133.jpg
Additionally, You know one of my fave hip hop things to do is say, “_____ rapper is
like _____ basketball player.” Love the obvious potential for analogy
in the art, aesthetic and execution of each; not to mention similar
culture just makes it obvious sometimes.

Nas has always been sui generis, though – how to classify a cat that
was so utterly beautiful, executed on such a high plane only to fall –
not precipitously, but gradually. . .but still maintaining flashes of
brilliance, enough even to go toe-to-toe 20 years later, at least in
argument. . .which brings me to Starbury.

I think stylistically, Star may have been the most gorgeous, smooth &
precise cat to grace the court in our lifetime. I’m in no way putting
him up there AS A PLAYER with Kobe, Mike, even LeBron and def not
Iverson. BUT, the kid from Brooklyn with the silky 20-footer, the deft
three point shot, the no-look passing guaranteeing 10 dimes/game and
the CONTROLLED quickness (as opposed to AI, let’s say, whose reckless
quickness was advantageous nonetheless) combined with the ball control
of Chris Paul and driving ability of Dwyane Wade who could leap like
Mike? And at 6 foot even, if that??!

Fact is we know how the Starbury story turned out, but we don’t also
appreciate his four year run averaging 23.5/10.5/5. Even toward the
end, when motivated, he was unstoppable. Shoot, today I hear he’s
dropping 30/game in China:oP

Alas, Star can be Nas and Nas can be Star, save for the fact that as
you said, Mr. Escobar has his Trophy on the mantle already. But
aesthetically, stylistically and perhaps most important in regard to
career & emotional trajectory, you gotta admit there’s something
there.

Hip Hop Lyricists, eMCees and Rhymers

The key elements of true lyricism are – in no particular order – flow, content, creativity, consistency, staying on message.

Thus, these are the most outstanding hip hop eMCees over the past 20 years. . Peep:

 undre(image courtesy of  Deviant Art)

Andre3000 check 13th Story/Growing Old from ATLiens, or The Art of Storytelling 4 for his best work, though factually and subjectively The Greatest eMCee of All Time. I challenge you to find one lazy rhyme, line or vocal. The thing with Andre? He’s evolved from Southernplayalistic to ATLien to the amazing work of art Aquemini through Stankonia, The Love Below and yes, Idlewild. Growth akin to say a Radiohead in rock & roll; he’s not what he was, but he’s more him than ever. Amazing growth, maturity, intelligence, wisdom, talent, skill & execution.

https://i0.wp.com/media02.hongkiat.com/typography-portraits/mos_def_lyric_portrait_by_DilsJ.jpg (image courtesy of  DilsJ)

Mos Def from Blackstar to Black on Both Sides, Mos was consistently the most heart-felt, artful eMCee in the land. Evocative, emotional, intelligent & mature; a rare combination in hip hop. Fell off slightly during The New Danger/Black Jack Johnson phases, but returned with an authoritative revitalization with Ecstatic.

https://yallkiltit.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/pharoahe_monch_the_thirteen_mix_top_5_dead_or_ali-front-large.jpg?w=300 (image courtesty of  threesixphive)

Pharoahe Monch who? why? isn’t that the screachy guy that yells? Indeed. Since the days of Organized Konfusion, Pharoahe has pushed the envelope of singing/preaching in the context of his complex, layered sonnets. Tracks such as Agent Orange & The Healer showcase his relevant, political leanings, and his intelligence and awareness of The Modern World is second-to-none in hip hop. Remains underappreciated, and just like Mos & Andre, does not waste a verse.

Jay-Z/Eminem/Nas each has received enough accolades, album sales & kudos to last seventeen lifetimes (see below lists). Each deserves the credit, and though the trio probably has enough content/stories/rhyme scheme creativity, longevity to speak for themselves, I tie a common fault with each in that there are ALWAYS one-to-in-the-case-of-Nas-five tracks per album that are just lazy, cliche & there to check a box. While Nas’ first album, Illmatic, remains an artistic and lyrical icon, his steady downfall (laziness) has relegated him to the second ‘tier’ of true lyrical stardom.

Other notables include Notorious B.I.G./Tupac (though both were extremely reliant on image and thusly coasted on too many tracks, specifically on their respective double albums); Rakim (basically invented the ‘modern’ flow, though in the prism of retrospect, content lacks); Guru from GangStarr (maturity, content, voice, but ‘the king of monotone’ really did get old); Common (post-Like Water for Chocolate, though, guy really adopted the Neo-Soul thing and just split); Phonte (from Little Brother – completely underappreciated and essentially put 9th Wonder on the map, but peep ‘Last Day’); J-Live (raw deal from the days of raw shack, Longevity was amazing and has consistently released crate digging albums for lyricists to enjoy for 15 years); One Be Lo/One Man Army (formerly of Binary Star, one listen to his verse on KGB or ‘I Know why the caged bird sings’ and you’ll understand); Method Man (consistently impressive despite the pothead facade; in particular, his rhyme scheme evolves with each album, even after all these millions); Big Pun (negative points for content, but an amazing flow. Amazing).