So its nothing new to anyone that lots of critics want rap music that doesn’t sound like rap, that doesn’t follow the “tiresome” gangsta blueprint, as if living in the hood is going to provide a world of non-hood experiences to to rap about. Not that there isn’t some weak, dervitive, exploitative g-rap by any means, and certainly when an artist splashes color across the bluntsmoke-grey concrete urban canvas it can be utterly refreshing, like the lyrics on Still Standing or Mannie Fresh’s beats post-RZA/NY ‘claustrophobia®’. But when folks who hate on thug rap just for its limited, insular palette can miss out on some of the best rap music being made. Small variations on a familiar template can be the most satisfying for their clarity, for performances that seem honest and willing to express a variety of reflections of ‘reality.’ They don’t shock you with difference, and instead appeal to rap fans who know what they want to hear, real shit that echoes pathos and draws upon the strengths that the template supplies: ‘regular folks’ have opportunities to express anger, resentment, hopelessness, and of course finding beauty in the everyday. Blah blah blah, you’ve heard it all before. Rap is the new blues, man.
So Do or Die return to Rap-A-Lot for a brief 11 tracks, ditch the weak grown-folks Kanye/Kells R&B tracks that marred their last album, return to classic Do or Die sound, implying that they’re again young and hungry. It’s visible on the cover art: drop D.O.D.‘s classy black leather jackets, stand in ragged project stairwells wrapped in bulletproof vests, signifying a return to the roots, at street level. Most beats by traxster, the ragged-project-stairwell of Chicago rap production, the sound of the gritty windy city adrenaline rush. Do or Die live or die by beats and hooks, because lyrically they are usually on point and consistent always, but when beats or hooks are slipping you end up with D.O.D., which had its moments but was a lazy slide into contemporary MOR Chicago Kanye/Kells blandifcation, dull and forced ‘adult rap.’ As usual, Traxster’s dateless mob-style midwest grind, with whirring chainsaw-funk and bottomless bass kicks, does more with less for the ‘generic’ gangsta blueprint, proving how exceptional a group can sound when they stick to the basics. “Hey Ma” with Bun-B, for example, an R&B ballad that doesn’t sound soft and forced, but genuine, satisfied and comfortable – street rappers can’t just switch from hard to soft dramatically; the R&B needs to sound balanced with the hard shit. And as usual with Do or Die we have extensive R&B interpolations, slow burning loverman rap tracks that don’t sound overly smoked out like on Headz or Tailz, don’t have the obnoxious forced ‘grown and sexy’ Kanye/Kells modern Chicago all-caps SOUL, but stick to spitting a solid melody over gritty beats.
What makes this album impressive is how, despite all the signifyers implying a return to street-level Picture This “Po Pimp” hard rock young man shit, it is really grown-folks rap music – from the R&B tracks to “On My Own,” with a grimey singsong chorus lamenting street loneliness, addictions, getting fucked up to avoid harsh reality. Like the best veteran every-thug blueprint gangsta, Do or Die return to street level as adults, bringing to bear a mature perspective and honest eye to all parts of the hood, not in glorification but addiction, desperation, survival, love, fear, paranoia, anger, heart, earth, water, fire. It covers the spectrum like captain planet. Get this shit.