Son Raw down a fifth before court time.
Call it magic, chemistry or mojo, but there’s an intangible X-factor that pushes art from good to great to sublime. Without it, you can have all the talent and good intentions and check all the right boxes during the creative process, but there’s still a good chance you’ll hit a natural ceiling, even if it’s a very high one. For rap collaborations, the result are often dream projects that sound mind blowing on paper, but end up reminding you that its creators are merely mortal after the hype dies down. Sometimes collaborators don’t gel, other times, the results sound like two friends fucking around with low stakes results. Most of the time, if everyone involved is good at what they do, we get a perfectly listenable 4/5 album that pleases everybody without breaking through to a wider audience.
DJ Muggs has dropped an exceptional amount of these strong albums since he began his latest assault on the underground in 2017. Gems from The Equinox with Mayhem Lauren set the stage, highlighting how his dark psychedelia could compliment the latest generation of east coast emcees. Last year’s Dia Del Asesinato compilation, the underrated Cypress Hill comeback Elephants on Acid, and Roc Marciano collaboration Kaos all continued the streak, further establishing Muggs’ name among current rap fans. Nevertheless, as good as these albums are, and they’re all worth your time, they felt like strong jabs to the chin, or solid body blows. On Hell’s Roof, last month’s collaboration with Rochester, NY newcomer Eto, Muggs finally lands a knock out punch, delivering a full-fledged contender for best street rap album of the year.
Ultimately, this comes down to chemistry: every beat on Hell’s Roof fits Eto like a glove, and the underground emcee takes nothing for granted, delivering a standout performance for every bar across the record’s concise, 30 minute run time. The formula doesn’t stray too far from rap fundamentals: dark beats and rhymes about the intricacies of the crack trade, but both parties fully lock in, elevating the album and ensuring it becomes more than the sum of its parts. Eto is a particularly vivid writer with a languid, smoked out flow that draws heavily from Mobb Deep’s Prodigy while retaining its own unique timbre.
It’s an approach that served him well across a brief discography of Bandcamp releases, but he truly shines on this bigger stage, writing fully-fledged songs that dip into the horrors of the drug trade, but also the kind of gangster chic that makes the street life livable. For his part, Muggs draws on a career’s worth of tricks to provide the perfect soundscapes for these crime tales: there’s trip hop drums, spaghetti western pianos, horror movie synths and even blues guitar throughout the record, but it all sounds 100% hip hop when it all comes together. In truth, this selection shouldn’t be too different from the rest of Muggs’ recent output, but that’s where that X-factor comes in: somehow Eto got the best batch Muggs has cooked in ages. If you keep knocking out good projects, you’re bound to eventually land on great.
Hell’s Roof’s magic is most obvious on “Attics,” the album highlight and a strong contender for the shortlist of Muggs’ absolute best songs. Over sparse, minimal drumming and a stirring soul sample, Eto breaks down his clients, providing a few vivid details before moving onto the next. In lesser hands, this would be just another crack-rap excursion, the sort of post Jay-Z exercise in rap traditionalism that’s had NYC spinning around in circles for over a decade, but both the beat and the rhymes are imbued with so much personality that the results are transcendent – art rather than product.
One great rap album doesn’t make a career – particularly on the underground level that Eto operates in — but fans of Griselda, Mach Hommy, Roc Marciano, Meyhem Lauren, Wu-Tang and Mobb Deep owe it to themselves to check Hell’s Roof out early. It’s an album that stands tall next to those acts’ best work, and is undoubtedly Muggs’ best outing since Grandmasters with GZA back in 05. Most of all, it’s a testament to the fact that you can’t force a classic: this is the result of hard work by a hungry emcee and a legendary producer, but it also has that extra je-ne-sais quoi, and that makes all the difference.