High praise: I haven’t heard so many potent bass lines from any hip-hop producer not named Madlib and even considering Madlib, I haven’t heard so many of them in one place.
It’s hard to recommend Jake One’s production discography – and by extension, this album – when it’s littered by so many low-tier rappers: I phase out when D. Black goes on a brief creationist tangent on “God Like”; I have no idea what Bishop Lamont was thinking on “Kissin’ the Curb”‘s second verse; the choruses of “Feelin’ My Shit” make it hard for me to care about the verses or Jake One’s string hook; Mobb Deep’s Prodigy doesn’t do anything memorable on “White Van” (how could he? He’s given twenty seconds).
But some of the other rappers do really well. Yes, Kanye West and Jay-Z would have brought name recognition to the tape had they followed through, but Brother Ali does fine on “The Truth”: “Cooped up squattin in a studio apartment / Food stamps up in the pocket, mixin tuna with the ramen / Boosted a few bottles of baby food out the market / You ain’t grew in this environment, so who are you to comment?” Elsewhere, the increasingly sporadic MF DOOM gets two songs to himself and both are highlights both because the rapper (“He moves the crowd like a cursor on Doom / No curse words, Doom the worst church nerd verse heard” is how he opens “Trap Door, and that might make it his best opening couplet to any verse, though the ending “Got to be kidding me – NOT / Seriously plot (???), put a hit out…” bothers me to no end) and because of the kinetic beats that Jake One builds out of bass (“Trap Door”) and piano (“Get ‘Er Done”).
Elsewhere, Jake One works up a tremendous guitar blare over a bass bed on opener “I’m Coming,” and gives Young Buck a skittering percussion on “Dead Wrong.” The descending synth line, punctuated by some light horns, on Nas-reject “Oh Really” is another highlight, though De La Soul’s Posdnuos easily gets outshined by Atmosphere’s Slug. But the best songs are Blueprint’s “Scared” and “Glow.” The drums on the former are icy steel, juxtaposing with the warmer piano (and listen to those bass fills!), while Blueprint uses the space to tell a gritty story (my favorite lines are what’s said and not said, “She didn’t have to tell me what she did for a living / She had two different apartments in the same building”).
And “Glow” is the album’s best, because while his bass lines might be Jake One’s greatest strength (seen here as well), orchestral flourishes are a close second (sidebar: it’s quite obvious he’s responsible for the triumphant beat switch on Drake’s “Furthest Thing” from Nothing Was the Same), and Elzhi – responsible for another underrated gem of 2008 with The Preface – hands in the album’s two best verses: “Fiending to blow a minimal of a million large / Illuminate, make you vomit, word to Muhammad / Islamic, my pens blowing like comets when I palm it” and “Create an illy scene, here’s what I really mean / I make the whole city glow like the video for Billie Jean / Posses it, I was destine to be florescent, you less slick / Guess it’s just the finesse that you blessed with” and “I’mma live wire for hire, fire you an entire splurch / So jump up and get blew out like fire works.”
It’s clear that if you cut the bullshit (including the skits; I can’t imagine anyone consciously choosing to listen to “R.I.P.”) and whittled White Van Music down to a 12-track album, it would have been undeniably 2008’s best hip-hop album. Not that there were many good hip-hop albums that year anyway, so it probably still is.