Monday, October 10, 2011

Album Review: The Antiheroes – this is freeDUMB

            Easily one of the most talented and fresh-sounding duos in the world of rap, The Antiheroes’ (Sha Prince and Flex) debut LP, this is freeDUMB, is both musically a great contribution to hip hop and a powerful criticism of modern society and culture. Throughout the album, the two MCs not only point out the obscenities that they perceive around them, both in regards to the hip hop scene and the world at large, but they also poignantly express their own internal dialogues and struggles they face as artists and human beings. Most importantly, Flex and Sha are lyrically able to accomplish their thematic goals without sounding corny or repetitive. Each track on this album sounds like its own distinct single and evokes different emotions in the listener, despite producer MMac producing 8 of the 17 tracks (a testament to the beat-maker’s versatility and creativity). this is freeDUMB is an album not only for those who love high quality hip hop music, but even moreso for those who love and appreciate strong lyricism that touches on deep concepts and complex issues.
            The album opens with an eloquent and heartfelt verse by Flex over a lovely synthetic organ-laden beat by MMac and sharp cuts by DJ Docta. Flex, through bar-filled flows and with an ear-pleasing, mid-high frequency arioso tone, raps about his frustrations in facing obstacles to success as an artist. What rings through loud and clear though is not cynicism in Flex’s verse, but rather a passionate commitment to succeed (and with these kinds of lyrics, it’d be a damn shame if he doesn’t): “I’m so committed to living within an image of doing whatever’s fitting/ for me to be in position to give ‘em what they were missing.” Flex also speaks on a value that both he and Sha seem to hold dear to their art when he spits: “honestly is my honesty necessary to blow?/ is selling your soul the recipe? I was hoping it’s no.” It’s clear from listening to this is freeDUMB a few times that The Antiheroes are not willing to compromise their content or dumb-down their self-expressions in order to make music that may be more commercially viable or marketable to the masses. That’s not to say that this is freeDUMB isn’t commercially viable; if anything one of the reasons the quality of their work is so strong is that these artists don’t settle for less than raw authenticity in their music. On the same title track, Sha Prince (bringing a sharp delivery, and on-point intricate flows to the table) reflects on his own self-doubts and personal life choices, which he worries may contain an opportunity cost that doesn’t add up in his favour: “life – I never rush it/ I’m rolling with my punches/ maybe I slow it too much and now I’m running lunges” and “being a rap-star isn’t in my best interest.” Undoubtedly, Sha echoes the same hunger and passion in his verse as Flex does, firing off intense and ferocious flows: “in a verse, on a record, some may say he talk reckless/ but never give a damn, since a kid my mind rebellious/ and I eat these rappers’ lunch, dinner, breakfast on a tracklist/ only spitting two years, word almost perfected.” For a rapper only spitting for two years, Sha Prince displays a lot more talent and skill than many who have been in the game for a decade.
            Jon Dubbs supplies a rock-symphonic instrumental on the second track, Become Alive, complete with guitar riffs and violin melodies on the chorus. Flex and Sha articulate their internal conflicts on this track perhaps better than any other on the album. Sha Prince in particular, never a stranger to expressing brutally honest and at times even extreme thoughts on wax, goes in on his conflicting desires for wealth and material success in contradiction to staying true to his own values and principles: “living lavish was never my goal/ ‘till my hunger rose, belly ache, winter froze/ lights dim, looking at my situation inside impatient eyes/ temptation is now my best friend/ worst enemy, lord seek the remedy/ lead me on the right path before my body doesn’t breathe.” Sha’s erratic flows on this track excellently compliment the frantic nature of the opposing thoughts being vented on this track.

Circus Clowns (track #3), another engrossing production by MMac with DJ Docta cuts, is a poetically infused track in which The Antiheroes attack the rap scene which they perceive as becoming little more than a “circus of clowns.” Sha and Flex stake their claim as MCs to be reckoned with on this track and confidently announce their goal to elevate the standards of what is deemed to be acceptable, quality rap music (also check the remix on the album’s final track).

Fly (track #5) is an inspirational track with captivating samples by producer Jay Emess about finding motivation and self-empowerment by being grateful and focusing on living out dreams in order to elevate over current circumstances.

            There’s a slew of talented features on the album. Soulful songstress Tamsynn Lee blesses track #4, Masquerade, (as well as track #9, All Alone) which is a song that digs below the surface to reveal the underlying causes of unfortunate life circumstances that have become all too commonplace in the world. Prolific Durham Region rapper Daxflow makes an appearance on Everyday (track #6, produced by Beatwyze, DJ Docta again on the cuts) on which he vents his anger about his abusive, selfish, irresponsible absentee father, while Sha Prince speaks on the painful experiences of his past that he kept inside and Flex reveals that expressing himself via writing and rapping has been vital to his existence: “what’s living if I’m within a prison built up inside?/ if it wasn’t written, I’d never find a will to survive.” Everyday is an especially insightful track as each of the lyricists describe in their own way (whether explicitly or otherwise) how hip hop, via writing and rapping (i.e. being emcees), has given them the ability to stay sane and live productive, meaningful lives despite the trying circumstances they faced growing up. The Rebels (Listen Up) (track #7) is one of the heaviest hitting bangers on the album, thanks in part to the banging beat produced by up-and-coming Toronto producer RichKidd. This track is definitely an attention grabber (evident in the title of the track), with high-impact lyrics, punchy deliveries from both Sha and Flex, and complete with a feature from the always entertaining D-Sisive: “fuck you, your momma and your cousin too/ your momma’s gay husband’s uncle’s brother, and his cousin too” (yes D…you got our attention...).

Singer Emerson Brooks (recently signed to Atlantic Records) provides a unique hook on Where to Begin (track #12), a song about relationship troubles and past relationships. Kenny Cee, another skilled vocalist, sings the chorus on Given Up On Me (track #13), a track produced by Khz with a sample that sounds eerily similar to Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven. Flex and Sha Prince complement each other very elegantly on this track, with Flex delivering a calmer, more melodic verse with reflective and well contextualized lyrics about his past, whereas Sha raps with a much harsher tone and abrasive cadences, which match the animated and harsh content on his retrospective verse. Gospel-style R&B singer Mike Devine compliments track #16, Morning, with his passionate and ambient voice. The beat on this track, produced by Graffic, is probably the calmest and most laid-back beat on the album, which evidently doesn’t suit The Antiheroes style very well, unfortunately – both Sha and Flex sound a bit harsh over this track, which could have benefited either by them toning down their deliveries a bit or by a smoother vocal mixing by the engineer.
The Antiheroes give a vividly dispelling treatment to the dirty underbelly of the “Hollywood lifestyle” of entertainment on Hollywood (track #10), produced by triple-threat artist Relic. One of my personal favourites on the entire album (which is hard to say, given how dope the entire project is) is the track OJ Gloves (track #11). There’s something very serious and polished about Sha’s tone and delivery on this track, showing that even when he simplifies his flows he can still spit hard and impress with the best of them. Flex also comes correct and on point on OJ Gloves, at times with flows reminiscent of Big Pun (with a clearer voice and less laboured reathing). Lyrically, both emcees prove how bright they can shine in this song (albeit each in their own way), Sha with his clever vulgarity, “laughing, like my first name Freddy dude/ last name Kruger but filthier than a prostitute/ not on my level – never reach my altitude/ finger hurt from skipping your tracks like they was interludes,” and Flex with his intellectual superiority, “I take it some of you followers swallow what you were fed/ you wallow within your own – I’m stepping over your head.” Track #15, Of the Night, is definitely a hidden gem on this album, with The Antiheroes coming raw with flows that remind the listener of classic Planet Asia verses and lyrics that evoke the feelings of dark alleyways and late nights with shady characters in the wrong part of town. MMac again supplies an excellently produced instrumental for this song that evokes memories of Pharaohe Monch’s Internal Affairs album.
There’s an overarching sound on this is freeDUMB that can best be described as a romantic requiem in response to a dead and pure form of hip hop that has been lost over the years. In a broader context, there seems to be an undertone in the MCs words expressing a nostalgic eulogy to naïve dreams, desires, and values that, while not being abandoned, have had to be tempered and adapted to certain harsh realities they now face. Flex and Sha Prince are, for the most part, a very complementary pair of artists throughout the project. Flex endows The Antiheroes’ sound with a sense of stability in terms of rhyme pattern, flow structure, and smooth delivery while Sha Prince contributes unpredictability with intricate flows, harsher tones, and a gritty feel to his verses. After listening to each artists’ lyrical content, particularly their respective interludes (Flex on track #8 and Sha Prince on track #13), it seems that despite both of them coming from difficult childhood upbringings, Flex is a bit more at peace with his past that Sha is. The difference in the places on their life journeys between the two artists, while the divide doesn’t seem to be too big, makes for an interesting dichotomy throughout the project. It’s hard to fault either MC for anything; both of the rappers are technically almost perfect with their flows and their styles are well defined. To be nitpicky (and I am stretching for constructive criticisms here), Flex’s voice and presence on the tracks can at times sound a bit monotonous from song to song (despite switching up his flows and rhyme structures). Sha Prince, on the other hand, can occasionally go a bit far with the complexity of his flow structure, which can sometimes obstruct the vibe of the track. Most listeners may not put this album on repeat and listen to all the minute details and technical elements in the music, however I encourage them do so – if they are lovers of hip hop, they will be hard-pressed to find anything to give this album flack for. The Antiheroes have set the bar very high for themselves on their debut LP, and I hope that the world starts to take notice of the immense talent that is embedded on the wax (or plastic or digital encoding) of this is freeDUMB.

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