One of the more frustrating things about hip-hop heads*, specifically those old enough to remember the first two Golden Ages, is the general groupthink that no hip-hop album made today can possibly be as great as anything made during 88-96. This is just how it goes. Nostalgia is a motherfucker and no matter how dope I think “Cappuccino” and “Royal Flush” are, they will still never give me the charge that I get when a DJ plays “Gimme the Loot” back-to-back with “Hip Hop Hooray.” I get it. Sure, there's probably also a grain of truth to the argument that things were in fact, better back in the days (no Ahmad). Hell, at times reading Thimk's digitized collection of old Source magazines makes me think that comparing 88-96 hip-hop with modern stuff is like comparing apples to orange pineapple juice.
Yes, fantastic hip-hop is produced on the (semi) regular, but as we've discussed, you've got to dig deeper than the Universal Music Group hegomony (hey Def Jam, thanks for sending me the Blood Raw and Pittsburgh Slim jaunts, they make for fantastic coasters). Making it harder, of course, has been the demise of all the independent rap outfits. Forget Fondle 'Em and Rawkus, where are the Tommy Boy's, 4th & Broadways, Delicious Vinyl's and Wild Pitch's? Go listen to “Labels,” again, half of those crooks no longer exist, the other half have been folded into some larger umbrella organization where the only thing people can agree upon is that they need more “Lollipops.” ** Sure, Def Jux and Stones Throw are usually consistently very good and every now and then Duck Down and Rhymesayers release something worthwhile, but none of them release more than four records a year and though B.C.C. are something fierce, I'm just not checking for them in 2008. To say nothing of Mac Lethal.
Elzhi does not have a label. In fact, you've probably never heard of him unless you're one of the 23 people that semi-regularly comment on this blog. A few years ago he joined Slum Village and nearly did the impossible: making people care about them after Dilla left. Over the past few years, he's been working the cameo circuit, popping up sporadically to kill it on every Detroit release, slowly building anticipation for a full-length allegedly supposed to drop later this year. Europass was supposed to be a stop-gap, self-pressed CD to sell at merch tables on Elzhi's recent Spring tour of Europe (he's huge in Antwerp). According to Elzhi's Myspace, it'll also see a physical release at some point, but who knows? Even if it doesn't, it's not just the best rap album of the year, it's enough to make me thank god for the Internet.***
Lest I get pilloried in the comments section, I'll refrain from calling Europass a “classic,” but if it isn't, it's not far off, hitting many of the benchmarks required from classic rap records. First and foremost, Elzhi is a quintessential “rapper's rapper.” Not in any sort of corny, Canibus “scientific” way, but in that true-school, “I will battle you until your larynx crumbles” way. His flow is machine-gun like and the subtext beneath intimates that it's been honed under the pressure of thousands of ciphers and tapes of Road to Riches played until they popped.
Reading the fully transcribed text (see comments section) of his verse from “Motown 25,” should be mandatory for aspiring rappers. Forget the perfect pacing and the delivery coming at a whiplash speed, study the syllable placement and the cleverness of the wordplay. All the people praising every half-assed Lil Wayne turn of phrase (sorry bucko, “like ranch I dip” is fucking retarded), ought to snap to attention to a line like “I'm higher than the jeans on Urkel.” Which is pretty much the most obvious yet brilliant line since V. Vaughn came to “save the game like a memory card.“
Production-wise, this marks Black Milk's official emergence as one of the finest beatmakers in music. Forget the Dilla comparisons, he's very much his own artist. As much as this showcases Elzhi's lyrical and technical capabilities, this remains very much Milk's record. Popular Demand, Phat Kat's Carte Blanche and Caltroit merely hinted at his potential and indeed, Europass feels like he's only beginning to enter his prime. Handling 75 percent of the record's tracks, the man born Curtis Cross eschews the sunshine organicism of post-Native Tongues Dilla, for a darker, metallic vision. This is the rusting, twisted metal of post-glory days Motown. Tracks like “That's the One,” “Fire” and particularly, “Talkin' In My Sleep” find him conjuring the sound of ice and cold Detroit steel. Drums pop like cars backfiring in a pounding rain. Soul samples are splintered into oblivion. If the Bomb Squad and El-P are the overt soundtrack to urban decay, Milk is the subtle alternative, with music less explosive than it is haunting. A fellow Rock City native, Elzhi plays the perfect foil, tackling Milk's tempestuous soundscapes with that rare chemistry found in the great duos: Cl Smooth & Pete Rock, Guru and Premier, Marley Marl and Kane.
Elzhi Conducting An Auction at Butterfield & Butterfield
It's been said that Elzhi doesn't have all that much to say, which is partially true. Thematically, he sticks to boasts about lyrical skill, the perils of inner city existence and a love of hip-hop, weed and women. But it's not just what Elzhi says but rather the way in which he says it. Lazy rappers would describe a girl by saying she has a “phat ass,” whereas on “Save Ya,” Elzhi describes one as having a “figure that can turn 'no' into 'maybe.” Instead of saying he's a “dope MC,” the ex-Slum Villager will declare “what I put down in the sound coil/is crown royal/it's like I dug in the ground soil and found oil.” He doesn't “slay wack rappers,” he'll “known to terrorize/paralyze a pair of guys/or prepare to rise off the land, sea, air and skies.” You get the drift.
Five years ago, you or I wouldn't have heard Europass. No major would've ever touched it and if we were lucky, some tiny indie might've released an extremely small number of copies to minimal promotion and buzz. But times have changed and with the spate of blogs, file-hosting services and the ever-increasing emergence of the Internet as the new streets (weird), Elzhi's Europass will probably get more promotion than that godawful Pittsburgh Slim album that Def Jam buried at the beginning of the year. Not only is Europass the best rap record since at least The Big Dough Rehab, it provides a strong argument for the D being the vital nerve center of hip-hop right now. And no, I'm not talking about Dwayne.
* Other than an unabating love of Cormega.
** Humanity, you really blew it on this one.
*** And in all likelihood, unless Bar Refaeli reveals herself to be a huge fan of both subterranean hip-hop and the blogosphere, this is probably the only time I will ever make that statement.