by David Uberti
All signs point to Slum Village's new Villa Manifesto album being the hip-hop vets' final chapter. If the Twitter drama surrounding SV's impending split is true (it sounds more like the day after prom), their latest full-length is a fitting end to a storied career, and a respectable conclusion for an entire era of Detroit hip hop.
The fact SV made it past the turn of the decade is a feat: After mainstream success and failure, breakups, reunions, bad health that saw two of its original members die — J Dilla succumbed to lupus in 2006 and Baatin died little more than a year ago — theirs is, perhaps, the saddest story in all hip hop. We now see remaining members part ways for solo careers.
The group from Conant Gardens has gone through some serious shit, and Manifesto reflects that. It features work from all three original SV members, including J Dilla, Baatin and T3, in addition to Elzhi and Illa J. And none of them disappoints.
Gone are the days of their easy-listening 2004 hit "Selfish," in which SV teamed up with a young, relatively unknown Kanye West to rap of juggling women, or 2000's ménage a trios anthem "Climax" (Gary Coleman with a big-ass afro, anyone?).
No, Manifesto is darker. A lot darker. Even the album's instrumentals, always an SV strong suit, are more aggressive than in past works.
"The Reunion Pt. 2" couples ominous instrumentals with retrospective lyrics that revisit SV's history, and Baatin lays down his best verse of the album here, delving deep into how his struggle with alcoholism and mental health problems forced him to leave the group. He ends his verse with a sad, but fitting, thank you: "Lord gave me another chance/ to do my thing in this hip hop/ doing the slum dance."
The same sort of intense, in-your-face musical passages color "Where Do We Go from Here," in which strings don't soothe, they're menacing, almost forcing your head to nod. Young RJ — Black Milk's partner in crime from B.R. Gunna — produced the song, and he's a true star of the album, having produced seven of its 13 songs, and makes SV's darker, more mature lyrics work.
Even T3, the group's only 13-year mainstay, takes giant strides here. The emcee often substituted style for substance, leaving deeper meanings for lyrical masterminds Elzhi and Baatin. But he digs beneath the surface for "The Set Up," vividly describing how SV is called to cover a friend's debt. And he spits absolute fire in "Scheming."
The album's only problem is it's five years too late. Few besides His Holiness, Eminem, can make hard, shoot-first-ask-questions-later rap sound good anymore.
Rapper Gucci Mane speaks a language that's still indecipherable, and Oj da Juiceman sounds like a hyena on crack and so on. ...
SV makes this antagonistic style work, knowing how to force the issue. But the future of hip hop is friendlier, smoother and more laid-back — the Kid Cudis, Wiz Khalifas and Chiddy Bangs of the world have proven as much.
SV tips its cap to this new sound once on Manifesto, and the song succeeds. "Faster " has a catchy, electronic vibe that blends perfectly with Canadian pop singer Colin Munroe on the hook; it's silky-smooth and is the strongest here — it only disappoints when Munroe's synthesized voice fades.
Like Em, SV's original members have never forgotten their home. T3 salutes his roots on the finale: "I do it for the principle, it's that simple/ I did it for the three one third ... It's just in my blood to make more music/ Renew the Detroit ruins, and I'ma do it."
The SV guys have been among the few Detroit artists besides Em to make any real noise over the last decade, and they understand what they mean to local hip hop. Their rollercoaster career, which began in the Pershing High School's underground scene and appears to be ending after six studio albums, has come full circle. They've combated every sort of adversity throughout their career, and battled fate just long enough to put together one hell of a last waltz.
David Uberti is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.