If this review is your first introduction to the People Under The Stairs then prepare to do some catching up. I’d personally put the group’s second and third albums (Question in the Form of an Answer and O.S.T., respectively) in the top ten hip hop albums of the last decade and likely the top 50 of any genre. Comprising Thes One and Double K, each of whom share duties looping samples and weaving rhymes, People Under the Stairs create jams that are simultaneously effortless and complex — perfect for a BBQ or nice pair of headphones. At first glance the PUTS albums may seem a little flat in terms of lyrics — many of the songs center around Los Angeles, a love of good music, and an insatiable appetite for booze, broads and buddha. But unlike many of their contemporaries, People Under The Stairs have a level of substance that can rival avant-garde artists from any genre. Exhibit A: Thes One’s classic verse from “Earth Travelers” off of Question in the Form of an Answer: “Discovered history repeats so I loop beats/ collect loot on the streets, keep the people out of their seats/ at shows with the long-headed flows of poly-syllabic prose and no dough/ administer no sleep/ yo, we come from the sunset and that packs heat.” As the Yin to Thes One’s Yang, Double K perfectly balances the group with his low-pitch flow that always sounds fresh and unique.
People Under the Stairs’ eighth album Highlighter, like six of their previous seven albums, clocks in at over an hour long, packed with 18 songs and two bonus tracks. And on this album, the duo does a great job of delivering stellar beats and rhythms, while bolstering their production with creative concept songs. “Foolish People” follows the story of Double K getting slipped some acid before a show and figuring out what happened while on stage. The following track, “Ascension to Nowhere,” is a logical follow-up that feels inspired by psychedelic ’60s rock and works well as Double K and Thes One pass the mic every two bars. The final two thirds of the song is a series of guitar riffs, spiraling synths and a gentle psychedelic vocal sample. Although this sounds incredibly out of place — and it is — it works well within the context of the previous song and a half. Veering into a different direction, “This Lifetime” concerns the failure of sex friendships to progress into serious relationships, while a simple Spanish guitar sets the mood for more heartfelt verses and a laid-back groove.
One of the album’s brightest moments is the simplistic “Dewrit!” [do it!], which has a distinctly tropical sound but never strays far from the PUTS formula, as Thes One and Double K deliver solid verses between the clever vocal-sampling chorus. The song should sound instantly familiar yet exciting to any long-time People Under The Stairs fan. And about those samples: While PUTS is known for digging deep into the crates and using some of the most obscure loops, this album features a couple very recognizable samples that still work well within their respective songs. The very fact that PUTS can weave a sitar cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into “Mean Spirited” and make it work is a true testament to their production capabilities. “Talkin’ Back To The Streets,” yet another tribute to L.A., fittingly mixes in some lines from the RHCP classic, “Under the Bridge.” The primary flaw with Highlighter, however, is that the group’s generosity might be their undoing; of the 20 songs here, at least six of them are lackluster or seem to miss the mark.
Hip-hop is in a interesting state at the moment. Aside from a typically crapshoot mainstream, the underground has also had its share of misfires. The last decade was fairly strong for artists on labels such as Rhymesayers and Def Jux, but those very same artists seem to have lost their edge, substance, and confidence as of late. But there’s still plenty of promise for the future thanks to recent developments from some more experimental acts, from the abstract sounds of Shabazz Palaces to the angry, raw, unpolished potential of Odd Future. As these artists find their sound and place within hip hop’s history, The People Under The Stairs have been steady laying in the cut — always honing their sound, always evolving their style, and, most importantly, always having fun doing it.
Murs – Murray’s Revenge
People Under The Stairs – Question in the Form of an Answer
Starving Artist Crew – Up Pops the Sac