Album Review: Mello Music Group – Bushido [Compilation]

[Mello Music Group; 2021]

Arizona-based hip-hop label Mello Music Group have been at the forefront of developing talent for over a decade now. They’ve been the starting point for many of today’s best emcees like Open Mike Eagle, Jean Grae, and Oddisee, but also housed iconic voices like Ghostface Killah and Kool Keith. Every few years, MMG puts out a compilation to highlight the talent and capabilities of their roster. Bushido is the first in five years, and does exactly what it promises.

At a hefty 20 tracks, Bushido isn’t struggling for content. It runs a gamut on approaches but stays grounded thanks to a host of excellent producers including The Alchemist, The Lasso, Namir Blade, Apollo Brown, and several more. As compilations go, there’s hardly a theme to be found outside of the Japanese culture references, but the flow is truly noteworthy as Bushido never lags. The best tracks on are cut up and spread across its hour-plus runtime, but there’s nary a bad one to be found. Some of these team ups we might never see again, and feature talent on top form. What’s more, everything here is exclusive to the compilation, not to be found on any other release.

“Iron Steel Samurai” kicks things off with Quelle Chris musing over a Japanese-inspired instrumental provided by The Alchemist, which does quite a bit to set the stage. Quelle is always on point, “You get lifted like Trump’s toupee with the wind blowing, like how you doin’,” while The Alchemist’s production that brings to mind Ka’s 2016 album Honor Killed the Samurai with its hazy aesthetic.

“One of the Last” steals the show during the first quarter and gives a great peek into what we can expect from Marlowe, a relatively unknown duo comprised of North Carolina based rapper Solemn Brigham and producer L’Orange. Brigham spits red hot but L’Orange gives him an almost indie-pop canvas. It’s not the only highlight by L’Orange either, as “Ta-Nehesi the Vocals” is another off-kilter boom-bap cut that showcases what the producer can do, keeping ears on him despite Skyzoo’s solid bars.

Midway through, Bushido surprises with a string of bangers that are all required listening, starting with flagship collaborator Oddisee’s “Never Lived”, which he also produced. His bars are fast but slow, and he pairs himself with a funky soul-inspired beat that wouldn’t be out of place on Anderson .Paak’s Malibu. “Bane Brain” might be the best cut on Bushido, with its soundtrack-like rhythm and fiery rhymes from Quelle Chris and James Shanan. “Black Rock” showcases the under-appreciated Ohio rapper Stalley, the label’s recent signing, and here he blasts through his verse and holds his own with Joell Ortiz and Namir Blade.

Open Mike Eagle does put in a couple of appearances, but both find him steering clear of the dark comedy of last year’s stellar (and BPM’s #1 album of 2020) Anime, Trauma, and Divorce. This might be intentional though, to highlight the producers who aren’t as well known – Bandcamp star The Lasso on “Gold Gloves” and Elaquent on “Symbol of Hope”. The Lasso is one of the newest signings to MMG, and his production on “Gold Gloves” is serviceable but isn’t nearly as thrilling as his work on “Gwan B Ok”, which fits nicely with Zackey Force Funk’s hushed vocals.

If you’re listening to it from beginning to end, Bushido might test your attention span in the final third, but it’s got plenty of strong points to keep you engaged. Georgia Anne Muldrow gives a minimal but impactful beat to Murs on “Turnt Garveyite”, and despite Cambatta’s “Nightmare” now being a year old it reminds us that Apollo Brown is a formidable beat maker. The anthemic “ZeroFux” brings Kool Keith into the fold with B-Real and Joell Ortiz in a way that should bring a smile and a nod from many. The closer, “Banners”, is a proper finisher; The Perceptionists haven’t put out much since their 2018 album Low Resolution, but here they drop one of their strongest performances, while !llmind provides the beats and crafts a perfect cap on a rewarding compilation.