Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Review: Notoriety - The J.A.M.
Mixtapes are all about momentum. It's not uncommon to have over twenty tracks on one, not to mention skits and interludes that can push the whole thing into double LP territory. With over an hour of music, quality control becomes critical. With their follow-up to The Toast EP of from February, Notoriety has released another 19 songs to prove the energy and enthusiasm of their debut was more than lightning in a bottle.
Opening with a spoken word piece that works much better than it has any right to, Notoriety chooses a fantastic lead off beat. From the very first bar, it becomes clear that the group has evolved. The wordplay and the cadence of the rhymes are improved across the board, keeping perfectly in line with the rhythm of the Motown vocals and brass arrangements and allowing momentum to build and carry from track to track. The opening songs are also much more personal that anything on The Toast, bubbling with personality and details, a refreshing change of pace from the traditional money/drugs/women fodder. That's not to say that the wordplay has been compromised or that the swagger is gone, it's simply that these songs feel fully realized from start to finish.
I've never understood them, but as far as skits go, the ones here aren't terrible and serve to reinforce my previous point that the album as a whole feels more personal than the last, which is good, provided you have something interesting to say. Through the first 5 songs, Notoriety is firing on all cylinders. Vydle Sinez conjures an electric opening verse on Can't Stop Now, Just Rite deftly dances around the beat on Spoken Word and Incredible Chuck has a fantastic flow and wordplay on his Crowded Bus verse and an even better chorus.
With so much momentum behind them, Ghosts of Parties Past nearly fetters it all away. Party songs are hard to resist on a mixtape, but are well-worn territory and need a great beat and energy to truly work. The muzak trumpet production and Chuck's chorus sound tired and too smooth for a party song, sapping the energy from the verses and becoming repetitive by the end. Feelin' Alright recaptures some of this magic, but the next few tracks are uneven and suffer from trying to shoehorn in a chorus from Chuck when the song doesn't need it or would be better served by simply using a sample or having some sort of back-up singers to give him some volume and depth. Not every song needs to follow the Verse/Chorus/Verse formula, and sometimes these choruses slow the song down too much. The Toast was successful because it was about rapping first and foremost, and if/when choruses arose, it felt natural.
They shake out of this funk with When I Was Young which brilliantly samples "Cowboys to Girls" by The Intruders. It's the perfect example of a balanced song. The sample pushes the song along and offers a great beat for the group to play on. No chorus necessary, no overstuffing, just solid rapping over a solid beat.
With so many tools at your disposal, it becomes difficult to decide when to "stop" on a song. The digital age of music has made it incredibly easy to record and edit and manipulate songs from a laptop. With this flexibility comes the risk of losing the simplicity and the spontaneity that made the songs so great to begin with. If you don't have the production skills or the rap chops, this critique is moot from the start, but once it's clear that you have talent, it's important to keep things simple. Many of the songs on The J.A.M. match the intensity of their earlier material and even surpass them with improved lyricism and tone, but others feel bloated with too many ideas that need room to breathe. Too many ideas is a good problem to have, but make sure to give them the stage they deserve.