’Tis the season to be rhythmic. Music lovers relish the onset of autumn, one of the year’s biggest seasons for new releases. A number of Detroit artists are testing their sonic fate this fall through independent and major record companies. Here is a preview of some new Motor City grooves hitting record shelves (maybe, see writer’s note) near you.
Well, whaddya know? Motown did something unheard of in recent years. The label actually signed someone who is from Detroit. Lathun, though a new artist, is no stranger to the music business. He has worked with groups such as Xscape, Immature (now IMX) and the Raphael Saddiq-produced Detroit trio Willie Max. This was studio work. Now he gets the chance to shine as an artist.
Lathun’s first solo foray, Fortunate, is touted as neo-soul music ripe with poetic lyrics, true stories and fresh production. Some of this ballyhoo is true. His music is ripe, in the sense that it’s a new release. His lyrics are at times poetic and his stories are true. But the neo-soul thing is merely stated for categorization, because it’s really your garden-variety R&B. The production is reminiscent of that which is spun countless times a day on urban radio.
Lathun is a talented singer and songwriter. He wrote and produced the majority of Fortunate; his songs, which mostly deal with relationships, pull from his own experiences. But thinking of him as a neo-soul artist is asking him to play on the same field as Jill Scott, Maxwell, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo. That’s like hooking Mini-Me up with Janet Jacme and expecting him to hang. And though I love my Detroit cousins, if Lathun were a player on Team Maxwell, he’d would be on the second string.
Telling an original story does not mean the song will feel original. Lathun gives up the goods on tracks like “Would I Lie,” his account of cheating on a past love and attempting to fib his way out of the bind. Other standouts include the leadoff song, “Love Won’t Let Me,” which is driven by a slow, funky synth bass reminiscent of Bilal’s “Soul Sista.” This one has hit potential.
The problem with Fortunate is that nothing sounds refreshing enough to turn the listener into an inspired shower-singer. Maxwell’s rendition of “This Woman’s Work” does that. Bilal’s “Sometimes” does that. Lathun style is good, not groundbreaking. If you’re a fan of music’s current doe-eyed trendiness, purchase this record.
Fans of the Sun Messengers may recognize Big Will (William Elijah) as the band’s trumpeter. Will is also a vocalist who, drawing creative inspiration from the loss of his son’s mother and his own mom within six months, recorded Crowd Pleeza.
Will’s style is reflective of his musical influences, which range from Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross to P. Diddy and the Neptunes. Pleeza attempts to cover all the ground from these eras, mixing his smooth baritone with occasional raps and jazzy horns. Although the cuts “Don’t Stop” and “Teddy Bear” have hit the top-40 rap chart on mp3.com, I wonder which audience Will is actually going for — the young one, the older one or all of the above.
The lead song (also the title track) has a mellow groove with easy bass. The production is reminiscent of a mid-’90s sound. Other tracks, like “Big Daddy Shake,” mix a new jack swing vibe with raps that sound, well, old.
Will is a talented songwriter, however, and funk oozes from most of his tracks. Even those with seemingly dated production quality tend to be followed by tunes with more complex sonic arrangements. The raps, though, will lose you if you’re a fan of contemporary styles.
Will could benefit from two things: 1) young MCs and 2) public service announcements shorter than the one ending the CD. It’s very sincere, but grows increasingly syrupy as it continues.
Crowd Pleeza ultimately appeals to the 29-40 year age bracket. But it’s a solid effort with enough diversity between up-tempo grooves, hip hop and soul ballads to keep listeners satisfied.
s.k.l.f.l’s new album Da Unheard begins with a phone conversation where he’s asked the meaning of the word “freestyle.” For those out of the loop, freestyle is the hip-hop equivalent to improvisation in jazz. s.k.l.f.l correctly defines the term, then incorrectly asserts that no one has done it before him.
Milwaukee rapper Supernatural, an underground legend in New York City, first tested the concept of a freestyle hip-hop record in the mid-1990s. His record was never released, but was bootlegged widely. The reason it was never released is the same reason s.k.l.f.l. will encounter in the marketing of his album. People want to hear freestyle experts battle … live. They usually don’t want them to record albums.
The best thing about a freestyle album is the concept. The sheer thought of an artist ad-libbing an entire CD is impressive. Beyond that, people want to be entertained, and on-the-spot recordings are a novelty at best. s.k.l.f.l. and Jedi ought to be applauded for their effort, however, because the beats are decent. They’ve got solid underground appeal, and are not overproduced. But, as in most open-mic showcases, listening to MCs brainstorm out loud gets cumbersome after a time.
This is not to say the album is bad, and it’s not to say that s.k.l.f.l. is wack. He’s just attempting to break ground on a concept whose ground has already been broken. It is what it is, a freestyle session on record. You have to really be into that sorta thing to spend money on it. I wish s.k.l.f.l. and Jedi good luck. They’ve got a hard sell to manage with Da Unheard.
The Day That Changed The World
Black Operation Records
S.H.Y.Q.U.A.N.’s The Day That Changed The World arguably has the best presentation of all the local independent releases in this review. They painstakingly photographed, designed and duplicated their product. It’s an inviting CD.
Stylistically, and in terms of crew numbers, S.H.Y.Q.U.A.N. reminds me of Sunz of Man, the Wu-Tang syndicate group of which underground star Killah Priest is a member. That’s good on one level, dangerous on another. Productions fall on the shoulders of upstarts Zhao-Ski, Caparelli and Massiah Da-God. The three do a good job of meshing their styles to give The Day a sonic personality. The music is dramatic and foreboding. Tracks like “The War We Bring” and “Iconz” utilize horns and violins that look back to turn-of-the-century hip hop. Imagine Nas’ “Hate Me Now.”
Lyrically, the crew’s MCs switch styles and experiment often. The challenge is that, with so many rhyme slingers in one squad, the vocal presentation tends to sound schizophrenic. Listeners may prefer trains of thought that are easier to follow from song to song. Wu-Tang Clan (I keep coming back to them because they were the prototype for multiple-vocalist cliques) succeeded in 1993 because nine voices rallied around three main concepts — martial arts, 5 percent Nation of Islam rhetoric and life in the hood. S.H.Y.Q.U.A.N. rallies around the hood, but who doesn’t these days? Hip hop has so many ghetto reporters that each album becomes the same story, different city.
As Lauryn Hill said, “Every ghetto, every city and suburban place I’ve been reminds me of the days in (insert your ghetto here).”
S.H.Y.Q.U.A.N. will gain hood fame, but future albums should strive for more consistency.
Here’s a tip to independent artists: It is possible to spend thousands of dollars on what effectively becomes an “official bootleg.” Let me explain.
Three of the four releases reviewed here lack some critical components, none of which are artistic. Big Will, s.k.l.f.l. and S.H.Y.Q.U.A.N. don’t include a catalog number on the spine of their CD or a barcode. To make your CD “official,” you’ve gotta have these.
These artists effectively shoot themselves in the feet. Without a barcode, their records won’t be scanned properly, so they’ll miss out on official sales reports from Soundscan. Meanwhile, the absence of a catalog number means some record stores won’t sell their product, so they’ll be mom-and-poppin’ it for the life of the record. Better perform … a lot … or build and market the hell out of a Web site.Khary Kimani Turner writes, rhymes and rocks for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org