At the turn of the century, Jedi Mind Tricks kicked Philadelphia’s rap scene in a new direction with their sophomore album, the underground classic “Violent by Design.” Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind’s revolutionary production, combined with Vinnie Paz and Jus Allah’s furious rhymes, marshaled in a new era for the Philly underground. JMT’s blend of horrorcore and mysticism influenced artists and groups across the East Coast, especially those signed to the group’s label, Babygrande.
“A History of Violence,” JMT’s latest release, sounds a lot like 2006’s “Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell,” which should have been a good thing. The reunion with Jus Allah, who left the group after one album, should have given the group the vocal dynamic they’ve been missing. Unfortunately the album fails on both counts. Stoupe’s production, for the first time ever, is lacking. The classical music-influenced beats are still complex, layering ethereal strings and bells over hard-hitting drum loops, but few are memorable. Only “Trail of Lies” and “Godflesh” are worthy of the legend that is The Enemy of Mankind. Without dope beats to hold down the record, the job is left to the emcees.
Back in ’99, Jus Allah’s smooth voice with a faint trace of Elmer Fudd balanced well against Vinnie Paz’s gritty delivery. His back-and-forth verses shared with Paz formed ill tracks like “Heavenly Divine.” Between then and now, Jus has become a lot angrier. His voice is rougher and has lost its sense of effortlessness. His content has also lost much of its trademark Afro-centrism. At times, it’s easy to forget he’s even on the album. And though Paz is moving in a more socially conscious direction, he doesn’t spit anything as razor-sharp as JMT fans are used to.
“A History of Violence” disappoints. But fortunately for Illadelph hip-hop heads, there’s Reef the Lost Cauze’s “A Vicious Cycle.” Though a classic rapper in many ways, Reef has recently injected a big-ass vial of fresh serum into the Philly scene. On the album’s first track, Reef asserts, “don’t call it a comeback.” And this new release really does put him at the level of LL Cool J at the top of his game.
For the Illadelph underground, “A Vicious Cycle” seems to reinforce the shift in focus from beats to rhymes seen in The Roots’ “Rising Down” (2008). Reef’s got the art of storytelling down like Slick Rick or The Notorious B.I.G. He can cut battle records like 2Pac with less violence and more wit. And, on top of it all, he’s got jokes. The Cauze spits punch line after punch line. You wait for him to run out of clever things to say, but he doesn’t. He displays astute observational skill in lines like “You sharp as some scissors they used to use to cut construction paper” or “I dig in your ass like boxers that’s silk.” Reef is as skillful no matter what type of song he does or what beat he rhymes over. He verbally obliterates sucka emcees on “Get It? Got It? Good.” He tells a story from the point of view of slave revolt Nat Turner on one track and a corrupt, abusive cop on another. The ability to string together a large variety of raps under a coherent sound is one rarely found in even the best emcees.
The production complements Reef almost perfectly. “Nat Turner” features a fiddle that sounds like it’s mourning. “Thug Fantasy” has a dreamy, lifting melody evoking a mood like in Biggie’s “Sky’s the Limit.” The only questionable piece of production is “It’s Not That Easy.” Percussion that sounds like the beat to J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” laid over “The Godfather Waltz” has the listener asking “Why?” like Nancy Kerrigan. The lyrics of uninspired sexual banter with fellow Philadelphian Ethel Cee don’t make Nancy’s knee feel any better. Is it well-crafted satire like “I’m Rich,” from Reef’s previous LP, Feast or Famine? Sadly, no. But the song does not at all reflect his performance on the rest of the album. Though not as coherent as Reef’s last two releases, “A Vicious Cycle” has several brilliant moments.
Jedi Mind Tricks and Reef the Lost Cauze approach hip-hop in different ways. JMT has always emphasized creative production drawing on many diverse sources in pop culture; the raps have been subservient. Unfortunately, as on A History of Violence, the music can’t stand up when the beats aren’t solid. Though he isn’t attached to production as creative as Stoupe’s, Reef carries his songs with respect for what it means to be an emcee. He has mastered wordplay with a certain swagger only the greats exhibit. And he shows more versatility than anyone since Eminem circa Marshall Mathers LP. Perhaps he’s prophetic, too, when he says, “I’m’a end up in all y’all top ten, like G Rap, Big Daddy and Rakim.” We’ll just have to see.