Brian Josephs will save his rioting for when Coke Boys 4 gets snubbed next year.
You’re not about anything if you’re not saying something in hip-hop. It’s one of the only genres — with its beginnings as the “CNN of the ghetto,” the voice of the voiceless, and such — where artists have a perceived unspoken obligation to do so. Social-consciousness may not even be an artist’s lane. Too often, in order to get critical acclaim and avoid the figurative rappity-rap head’s side eye, there’s got to be that dedication to substance. That’s whether it comes from Kendrick Lamar’s rap-as-storytelling on good kid, m.A.A.d city, the wholesome, LGBT-friendly ethics of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist, and the hip-hop-as-not-hip-hop ethics of Kanye West’s Yeezus.
But what of the non-canonical releases that don’t focus on some sort of struggle (we’re counting thinking you might be gay because you could draw in third grade as one, right)? The Alchemist and Evidence were two teenagers from the Westside of LA who adopted an East Coast sensibility during their burgeoning mastery of the craft. After a decade of frequent collaborations, they finally decided to team up for their first full-length collaboration, as Lord Steppington. There wasn’t even a call to action to do so either; the duo told me they naturally decided to throw one together as a regular activity in their decades’ long friendship.
This could’ve been a vanity project in the key of Watch the Throne sans the grandeur, but instead of reaching, Lord Steppington puts its foot firmly in the “It is what it is“ category. Twenty years from now while new rap critics fret over topics like how Lamar lost to Macklemore for Best Rap Album and how did minimalism became cool again in 2013, there’s going to be a couple of kids crate-digging to revive those slept-on, alternative projects. There’s a chance Lord Steppington could be one of them.
Lord Steppington isn’t just about The Alchemist’s mastery over boom-bap. The duo attempts to recall a smart aleck sort of rap heard in the classic Beatnuts albums while drawing from the rhyme for rhyme’s sake fervor of the MCs and B-Boys of decades prior. Lord Steppington isn’t going to be mentioned in the same breath as Q-Tip, Kanye West, and the other mainstream friendly artists’ 2014 releases. But listen to the exhale of that glorious vocal sample in the opener “More Wins.” The Alchemist and Evidence don’t give a shit.
Look closely at that title. These cats have been winning, and you’re already playing catch up in the album’s first track. You don’t even really have time to question how precisely they have been winning or how the velvet album case — the reason behind Lord Steppington’s months’ long delay — even relates to the concept of the raps. The reason for the latter should hit you by the time Scott Caan a.k.a. Mad Skillz hits the mic on the Evidence-produced “Byron G” and spits stuff like, “Mattress fettucini, life’s a flick and I’m Fellini/ Pinky diamond rings above the rims of ice martinis” as if the former Whooliganz member isn’t aware he’s been out of the game for almost two decades. Fly shit (and friendship!) is the motive here.
That’s just fine when the songs are this tightly wound, although a big part of the album is those beats. If The Alchemist decided to score Scooby Doo but pulled out because the Mystery Gang couldn’t handle dope beats, you’d get “Dr. Kimble.” The guitar-backed grime of the Questlove-sampling “Legendary Mesh” should inspire a few head bobs in even the most lethargic person, and “Draw Something” is in itself a drug, as everything else slows down in Zack Morris-like fashion with the trippy guitar strums.
Evidence and co. aren’t just getting high off the aroma either; there’s some unprovoked slick talk to be found everywhere. On “Mums in the Garage,” there’s The Alchemist’s “Boy I traveled over 7 seas to distant places/ To retrieve exotic pets, karate chop the nipple of yo chest.” Fashawn compares guns to Theophilus London’s lips on “Banging Sound,” which is absurd, but it’s just fine on a song that samples ‘80s children show The Great Space Coaster. Roc Marciano as the black Raoul Duke on “See the Rich Man Play” is the very amalgamation of fly shit. Lord Steppington isn’t concerned with social context or music biz politics, but its freshness doesn’t lie in what it’s not but what it is: A well put-together collection of solid beats from a respected producer and bars from some of rap’s most underrated. It’s everyone else that’s missing out.
Buy: Lord Steppington