Detroit rap icon Esham — once Esham "The Unholy" — now returns to the rap game with a 22-track album for a new label, Overture, following a decade-long career on his own label, Reel-Life. Fans of Esham’s earlier works may be left scratching their heads after a listen to his new, more user-friendly sound. But, if anything, this is Esham stepping out from the shadows of his "underground" rapper persona to take a stab at a bigger piece of the pie.

From the first synth-rumble bass of "We Cumin For U," Esham gets into character: "Now let me kick the wicked shit that got me paid, bitch," then goes on to challenge Detroit MC Dirty Rat on "E-Mail" to a battle, while spelling out "D-E-T-R-O-I-T-3-1-3" over a Biggie sample and a sinister — what else? — keyboard line that sounds like a baby pounding on a toy piano. He kicks a metalized Beethoven’s Fifth on "Reload" and rips it, in spite of the all-over-the-place music, with his double-time rhymes

But it’s only on Mail Dominance’s best track, "Outcha Atmosphere," that Esham gets exponential results from combining his new mature sound and style and the hell-yeah, free-for-all skills of his arguably superior earlier work: He takes an eerie, dramatic, future-funk backing track and couples his trademark doubled-vocal delivery over a vocoder (!), warning us all that he’s back to be "comin’ outcha atmosphere with some real wicked shit."

The irony is that Esham has few peers on the local or national rap scene, even now with his more user-friendly sound. All 22 tracks might not be great, but Mail Dominance is still the year’s best 1999 indie rap release by a Detroit artist — hands down.

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