Plagued by death, in-house drama and label politics, the backdrop to Slum Village's incredible discography reads more like that of an old R&B group than a rap trio. A brief catch-up for those unfamiliar: The trio's second album, Fantastic Vol. 2, helped build their cult following. But founding members J Dilla and Baatin would eventually leave due to solo pursuits and mental health issues, respectively. Dilla died in 2006, and although Baatin rejoined Slum Village and finished an album with original group mate T3 and newer addition eLZhi, he mysteriously died last year. And now, after several unexplained release pushbacks for an album they've announced as Villa Manifesto, Slum hopes to regain momentum with this sampler EP.
Villa Manifesto EP isn't the same ol' Slum, though; instead, it keeps one foot in the future and one foot in the past. It seems that the technically superior eLZhi — who joined the group after Dilla left and seemed to settle in on the group's self-titled 2005 LP — has inspired group mate T3 to enhance his fun, laid-back rhymes. The duo competes for best verse kudos on songs like "Nitro" and "Da Night," while the newly rejoined Baatin impresses with his signature slinky flow and charisma. Madlib — a friend and collaborator of Dilla's — throws a curveball with his dusty, distant bounce on "Money Right," but the trio still knocks it out the park.
The group can still make the silky, female-friendly songs that helped build its early rep, though. "Cloud 9" enlists pianos by FOCUS and a melodic hook from Marsha Ambrosius. And Young RJ — half of the duo B.R. Gunna, who accepted production duties after Dilla's departure — handles half of the EP's songs, offering a mix of funky, murky and spacey to keep SV on its toes.
If the EP is any indication, Villa Manifesto will do exactly what it should — capture each of the group's positive elements throughout its career on one single project. And with all that the group has been through, they surely deserve a soundtrack that is just as moving.
William E. Ketchem writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.