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Back in 1998 I found out I could supplement my music addiction with free CDs just for reviewing them for my University's newspaper - The Brunswickan. I've been consistently reviewing hip-hop CDs ever since, and in fact, this month marked the beginning of my seventh year. I've since joined the team at HipHopCanada.com three years ago, which has only helped supplement my stream of free CDs. But they aren't really free because for each CD I review, I normally listen to it five to ten times, then the review takes about an hour to write, with another half hour of emailing, locating album cover pics, uploading, etc. It's a somewhat thankless process, but all in the vein of gaining a snapshot of the whole hip-hop scene without spending the money, while at the same time promoting other artists.
Now, six years later and with more than 300 album reviews under my belt, I find myself straining and waiting to find those great albums that come along every so often. As I sit here listening to the new Juno-nominated Sweatshop Union album, trying to write up another difficult review, I find myself torn. Like most albums, it sounds quite good, but yet like most these days, it leaves me with a slightly empty feeling. It has solid beats, but most songs lack a sense of cohesion between the verses and the content doesn't provide much of anything I haven't heard before. It can be frustrating. Regardless, I try to see each album for what the artist meant it to be and view it from their perspective, while searching for the highs and the lows.
It seems like these days in the Canadian underground, crews can be broken down into distinct groups. This leaves me yearning for someone capable of weaving within the streams that separate these groups. Unfortunately such groups or artists are few and far between. Here's my breakdown of some of the groups I've noticed:
There are the angry youths, even adults, who choose to vent their frustrations with disturbing gangsta talk following the lead of icons like Mobb Deep or Eazy-E. Hearing mindless raps about sporting gloks, selling drugs, and all those other hard things makes me wonder if they're talking shit or if Canada really is full of small gang oriented ghettos.
Of course there are the inexperienced Eminem wannabes who usually get a wake-up call from the local scene before they ever release any material.
There are those who feel morally obligated to harp upon the world's injustices, talk about corruption, sweatshops, greed, and of course the played-out George Bush. Yet rarely do I hear a group who has put time and effort into research and writing a fact-based political song. Political and conscious messages are great but without strong facts or a strong vocal messenger, the messages usually bore me because I've heard them in different forms a ton of times.
The marijuana smokers are abundant nowadays as many albums feature an ode to the drug to which so many are dependent. It's not enough that I know people who struggle to pay their electricity bill while spending $20-30/day on weed, but they use songs to gain fan reassurance that their unhealthy dependency is okay. It makes me feel helpless and a bit sad, but to each his own.
On the flip side there are those who aren't going to spend a full album complaining. Quite the opposite, instead they rap about partying it up. A full album dedicated to partying, alcohol, and their female pursuits. This happy-go-lucky group are all about living a fun care-free life, but unfortunately often use misogyny as their main form of marketing, leaving a sour taste in my mouth.
The hardest groups for me to review are the ones whose vocals don't grab me. They might have great messages, but if I have to stop and strain to grasp their message, then it's often lost on me. I want an emcee's words to jump out of the song and seize me by the mind, body and/or soul. Sometimes a poor mixing job can cause me to get bored vocally, other times an emcee just doesn't have the necessary charisma.
In the end, my favorite songs tend to be provided at the hands of storytellers; from the throat of a crisp vocalist; or most often they're built around a nice fresh beat. I think that's why I've come to enjoy diversity so much. A great album for me needs to be mixed well, come with original sounds, creative writing where each song provides cohesive verses centered upon one theme, and somehow manage to fishtail in between all of the above groups, while finding it's own stream of original hip-hop.
After forcing myself to listen to each song on an album (~17 songs per album) for over 300 albums at 7 listens per album, that means I've analyzed a lot of hip-hop and I'm getting a bit tired. The wait to find those gems lying in the rough seems to be getting longer and longer between each. I sometimes worry that someday all the gems will be gone.
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