“I’m no hater, I’m a realist, everybody is not gonna feel this,” Smif-n-Wessun bluntly snarl on the outro to their first album in nearly four years. In 2011, the gangster realist is out, passing long before Guru. The pair seem to know it, what’s more, they don’t seem to care. In an industry saturated by chest beating and self-obsession, a little humility goes a long way – and this is no small affair, either. Ever the mecca of “real” rap, Duck Down Records is again releasing the duo. This time out, the two attempt to present a record fitting of their reputation, still growing, as more continue to discover Dah Shinin’, among the should-have-been classics benefited by the advent of the internet. In order to address that sort of hype Tek and Steele recruited fellow Duck Down enthusiast, classic beatsmith Pete Rock, for the entirety of their work. What resulted could only be called Monumental.
Plenty of people had forgotten – or, these days, never heard of – Rock, but that’s changed somewhat following his producing Kanye West’s “The Joy.” The masses may claim to hate him nowadays, but you still can’t beat kudos from Kanye. Of course, that’s unfair to Rock, who certainly influenced Mr. West more than the other way around, but such is life and the fickleness of buzz. The producer certainly didn’t let the slightly regained influence get to his head: these beats hit as hard as anything that’s followed The Main Ingredient.
Albums like this have been increasing in recent years: the super collaboration. As the mainstream continues to shift all the farther from the sounds and styles once treasured, rap names that once sold – and had an impact – simply don’t. In a gesture to combat this, respected names have been hitting the booth together with ever-increasing frequency. Duck Down in particular is fond of this technique, releasing both this effort and Random Axe (a collaboration between three younger but equally adored talents) this month alone. These efforts are strange by nature: to the rap fan, these collaborations turn heads and are even occasionally earth shattering, hence a title such as Monumental. Yet, despite this ostentatious presentation, the album won’t even begin to attract the attention of a record by the likes of Wiz Khalifa. You could call an effort such as this the smallest of massive events.
This isn’t to say anything whatsoever regarding the quality of the record itself. It goes without saying that in a world stuffed with Soulja Boy and Lex Luger, sales and worth have begun to commonly disassociate in hip hop as much as any popular genre. Nonetheless, this is still an album, it cost money to make; money that need be returned to allow for the next Duck Down offering. They have to attract the listener somehow, and more than those proud few that follow the label or artist. With an album such as this, one has few options. One can reach out to a younger talent looking for a respect token (think Bun B and Drake), and both parties leave satisfied.
However, this has a way of watering down the product (again, think Bun B and Drake). Another avenue is the feature: avoid the big-name drop-in in favor of collecting as many other “respectable” names as possible. This is sound in principle, but Smif-n-Wessun already comprises of a duo, two personalities vying across their tracks. In order to gain some buzz, whether it be themselves or Pete responsible, the likes of Raekwon, Styles P, Memphis Bleek, Freeway, and, of course, Bun B appear. This is not even to mention the host of Duck Down costars who were guaranteed to drop in. Not a single guest is a waste of space; each asserts themselves and offers up a worthy moment. Nonetheless, the cohesiveness is lost. The tracks consistently bump, some offering up the best production Rock’s crafted in years, but a focus is never apparent.
The two intended primary MCs never get out much of a mission statement, making this more of a grand collaboration between all comers, rather than simply the three names on its cover. Sean P arguably steals “That’s Hard” (the album’s single) while Raekwon’s always smooth flow out-slithers the duo on “Prevail.” This isn’t to depreciate the pair; they’re still perfectly capable of shining alone, as they prove on the eerie, ominous “Fire”; it’s the same intensity they’ve been bringing for years, weaving together a tale of power and murder, seething dialogue such as, “Don’t worry ’bout the police, that’s just one less nigger on the streets.” They simply aren’t given many moments to with space to explore their own territory. Still, in the collaborative spirit of Duck Down, the guests ultimately don’t take too much away from Monumental. It all could have been a tad grander with a bit of focus, but it’s still a refreshing piece of throwback rap, whichever way you look at it.
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