Just about every year since the release of Enter the 36 Chambers has been called a `bad year for hip-hop’ by one unforgiving critic or another, and 2007 isn’t an exception to that rule. With three of hip-hop’s heavyweights (Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah and Lupe Fiasco) releasing new albums in December, that judgment could be premature. Still, it’s been a pretty fertile year for rap overall, particularly for those with a penchant for the weird. Dälek, Busdriver, Aesop Rock and El-P all made great cases this year for taking hip-hop toward its most experimental and progressive limits, while Jneiro Jarel and his new group, Shape of Broad Minds, have similarly adopted an extremely outlandish approach while layering on classic beats.
Trumping all in terms of its conceptualized weirdness, yet remaining a stunning example of dense and creative production combined with versatile verses, Atlanta/Philly-based Shape of Broad Minds’ debut album Craft of the Lost Art is one of the most innovative outlets for beats and rhymes in ’07. Not content to let T.I. outdo him on the split personality front, Jarel’s group features three of his alter egos—Jawwaad, Rocque Won and Dr. Who Dat?—while his fifth collaborator is a completely separate person, Panama Black. Exactly what duty each role plays is a bit foggy, though Jarel’s apparent madness is just part of an intriguing whole package, which also includes the year’s most impressive cover art.
From the first snap of a snare, the production on Craft of the Lost Art is hypnotic and heavy, like the complex undersea graphic design throughout. Jarel’s style draws heavily from the tight, organic feel of Madlib and Jay Dee, yet dives deeper into oblique realms, populating a space more psychedelic and foreign than either. As previewed on this summer’s Blue Experience EP, “Electric Blue” pairs space-age, glimmering effects with a subtle, yet deep bassline, Jarel flinging woo with verbal wit: “I see you like ice and carats/ got a backyard full of ice and rabbits.” First proper track “Light Years Away” is similarly cosmic, though considerably more distorted and intense, while single “Let’s Go,” which features a brief cameo by MF DOOM, is Jarel’s own tripped-out disco party jam.
The laid back flow on “Changes” is almost more trip-hop than hip-hop, crafted from a mesmerizing layer cake of samples. On the exotic electro-soul track “Opr8r,” Jarel perfects in one song what Andre 3000 took an entire album to merely approach on The Love Below. Count Bass D drops a few verses on the all-too brief “It Lives On,” while “So Much (Chaos)” bumps ominously with chopped-up swirls of sound. “They Don’t Know” has a stronger jazz sound, albeit a truly bizarre one, the beat skipping and jittering around the melody, as Panama Black sets the record straight: “folks in my hood be like, `he’s a basket case with a spastic face, always stressed out,’ but they don’t know.” In turn, Jarel declares “sometimes we jazz it up/ sometimes we slow it down with the bump” before Stacey Epps unleashes a furious high-speed flow.
“Beast from the East” is another track that could have been stretched past its deliciously distorted 96 seconds, but triumphs regardless, and “There 4 Me” is one of the most straightforward tracks here, breaking up some of the wild, left-field sounds. Furthermore, “Stiff Robots and Drunken Horses” is just plain solid. Given that the album contains 23 tracks, however, it’s not without its filler, though of that, only one is a proper skit, the rest being instrumental interludes, which actually make for pleasing transitions. That skit though, it can go.
There will be those who say that 2007 is a disappointment for hip-hop fans, and those in search of another Paid in Full will probably find just that. Yet as Shape of Broad Minds has exhibited, hip-hop is healthier and weirder than ever. Neither crunk, nor gangsta, nor grime, Craft of the Lost Art fits into a category all its own, blooming into a complex and compelling mutant party record for those who choose to dance outside the box.
Madvillain – Madvillainy
Jaylib – Champion Sound
Outkast – Stankonia
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.