Styles of Beyond’s Megadef begins with a buzz. Not a metaphorical this-shit-is-hot buzz, but the needling, invasive sound of a mosquito tickling your ear. The zzz-zzz-zzz, panned in stereo no less, is first a novelty, then a nuisance, and eventually yanks you to the brink of frenzy. Before the pestering drone carries you over the edge, though, Styles of Beyond unleash the pent-up pressure like a sonic geyser. The experience is unnerving. It’s also enthralling.
By all rights, this album shouldn’t exist. When the original Styles of Beyond team — MCs Ryu and Tak, joined by producer Vin Skully — released their 1998 debut, 2000 Fold, the group’s aggressive sound and attitude earned instant accolades. But their ironically named label, Ideal (run by the Dust Brothers), folded midway through production on their follow-up. Disgruntled and disheartened, the crew broke up and would likely have become a fond but faint memory if a freak car accident involving Tak hadn’t drawn Ryu back in touch to check on his old partner’s condition. Those chance circumstances planted the seed for Megadef. Joining back with Skully and co-producer DJ Cheapshot, SOB have capitalized on the reunion with a vengeance: Megadef isn’t so much a second album as a second chance.
Megadef is a heart-pounding chase down wet alleys of jagged glass and overturned trash bins. Most rap albums shock through content, screaming about mangled body parts and dead babies. True to their name, SOB deliver their jolts through style as they pen a James Ellroy–like novella of punishing rock riffs and furiously slashing prose daggers.
As its metal-inspired title suggests, Megadef throbs with pounding rhythms — Skully and Cheapshot do for classic rock what Just Blaze and Kayne West did for classic soul. SOB, though, avoid most rock-rap hybrids’ overwrought cock-rock opera in favor of a stripped-down attack. “You Lose” recalls the simplicity of ESG’s club classic “Liquid Liquid” with its walking bass line and sparse drums, while the singing guitar of “Outta Control” distills Jefferson Airplane psychedelia. The Rolling Stones’ moody “Play With Fire” turns more ominous on “Playin’ With Fire,” but SOB show humor, too — “Eurobiks,” their ode to early-’80s new wave, name-checks everyone from Depeche Mode to Wham.
The baritones of MCs Ryu and Tak are as imposing as ever, recalling the vocal gravitas that Rakim once wielded. The pair pour it on like salt in the cut, effortlessly smooth yet relentlessly stinging as they fire line after line with bunker-busting precision. The album’s not long on concept — the 14 songs play with a dozen new ways to say “fuck you” — but for a braggart’s party, Megadef rarely feels redundant.
Styles of Beyond first surfaced as darlings of the underground, and Megadef doesn’t break from that tradition. But the attitude, ambition and appeal of the album clearly suggest that SOB are gunning to reach more than just a cellarful of backpackers. Put a raucous ripper like “Superstars” or the lolling charm of “Mr. Brown” up against recent releases from the Def Jam or Roc-a-Fella labels, and SOB easily hold their own.
However, unlike forebears who made the journey from the minor leagues to the majors — Jurassic 5, Blackalicious, Mos Def, et al. — SOB aren’t doing it with consciousness-raising, feel-good anthems. To quote from “Pay Me”: “Hey/wanna free Mumia?/then fine/but not on my time/punk, you must be out your mind.” Megadef is all the better for dispensing with pleasantries and sticking to naked aggression.
Cheapshot says he hopes this is Styles of Beyond’s last independent album, and with any luck, it will be. Unless you’re G-Unit, sponsored by Eminem, it’s harder and harder to escape indie status. It’s like quicksand — the longer you stay in, the less probability you’ll get out. That morass has become a mass grave for many of SOB’s peers, but this group finally looks ready for prime time.
The Styles of Beyond record-release party is at the Knitting Factory on Saturday, September 13.
STYLES OF BEYOND | Megadef | (SpyTech)