[Open Bar Entertainment; 2020]

Serial Killers’ greatest blessing is their greatest curse. A supergroup composed of Xzibit, Cypress Hill’s B-Real, and the younger, lesser known Demrick, there’s no doubt a subset of rap fans for which such a trip is immediately enticing. Yet, for just as many of us, their existence is cause for immediate judgment. Pimp My Ride jokes aside, what chance do these guys really have of finding an audience that is willing to even attempt to appreciate the urgency of their message on Summer of Sam?

It’s a shame, because the music of their first proper album (following a 2018 EP) is indeed timely, impassioned, defiant, and, yes, urgent. Inspired by the varying absolute fucking messes of 2020, from Trumpism, to COVID, to police brutality, the album finds its speakers angered and dedicated to their craft in ways they haven’t been in quite some time.

Even beyond that, the music behind them is, more often than not, vibrant and very much of the now, so far as Cali-leaning production goes. A fair amount of the work here comes from Dem Jointz, a name that, if you don’t already recognize, only needs one calling card: he worked on a solid chunk of Dr. Dre’s Compton. Needless to say then, the beats here don’t slouch. “Quarantine” in particular is a veritable masterclass. Also present is Rick Rock, and while his best days seem long behind him (Cosmic Slop Shop’s Da Family remains one of the most underheard hip hop LPs, frankly, ever), he’s still capable of putting together a blunted banger. Focus… and others also come through, all operating at the absolute top of their game, clearly inspired by the material on hand.

So, then, what could these gentlemen have done to convince you to care? Probably very little beyond their attempt at shock and awe, dropping off the fiery Summer of Sam with surprisingly little fanfare last Friday. They’re clearly banking, or at least hoping, on the quality and power of the music itself to find listeners, and we can only hope they’re not wrong.

Summer of Sam is a surprisingly complex album, and one that expects more than a bit of unpacking and understanding from its listener. The rappers often assume sarcastic characters, ones that complain about mask-wearing and the like, and the casual listener could easily mistake this for their actual view points. Except for the fact that, you know, at the end of each rapper’s verse on “Normal”, after trying to ignore health concerns, they all end up with the virus (each rapper emphatically confirmed to this writer that they’re “huge proponents” of mask wearing). At the beginning of “Catch a Body”, Xzibit acerbically states, “To be honest, the Coronavirus shit is really not that bad,” a clear mockery of Trump, but one, again, that requires an attentive listener to note the sarcasm behind.

On that note, it’s worth noting for those that have only ever thought of Mr. X to the Z as either a Dr. Dre sidekick or goofy car pimperizer, that he once put out albums that inspired the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples. Give At the Speed of Life a single, solitary listen. That’s all you’ll need to view Xzibit in an entirely different light, and all you’ll need to better appreciate the man presented on Summer of Sam.

B-Real also makes a welcome return to form (not that he’s ever been truly off, see Elephants on Acid’s brazen creativity), returning to the anger of “Looking Through the Eye of a Pig” and other Cypress classics for much of the runtime. Here, his bouncily sinister voice is as captivating as ever, also serving as the perfect foil for Xzibit’s ever-so-deep bark.

Demrick, the least known party on hand, manages to acquit himself quite well alongside his elder, more famous peers, bringing righteous fury and a more youthful perspective to the mix, including a blessedly brutal, terse dismissal of Tekashi69 (“we’ve got bigger fish to fry!”).

The music also finds great power within its use of sampled dialogue, with “Powder Keg” in particular making brilliant use of an ominous police statement for its ‘hook’, as well as an impassioned speech from a young man laying out the frightening reality black youth face from policing in America. “White Power” finds more amusing inspiration by employing its titular line from Chappelle’s infamous Black KKK skit.

With Dem Jointz and co. behind the boards, and three impassioned rappers barraging you with quickly succeeding verses, it’s impossible for Summer of Sam to fail. Songs such as “Powder Keg” rank among the best hip hop protest songs of the year, while “Normal”, “Quarantine”, and more deal with the reality of COVID with energy and tact, and while it’s certainly easy to debate what makes a authentic political statement album vs. a cash-in, the work here feels genuine and earned. What remains to be seen is if an audience is ready and willing to embrace it. We live in a culture programmed to forbid rappers from returning past their given moment, a concept Serial Killers intend to spit right in the face of. We really ought to let them.

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