Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Czarface - A Fistful Of Peril Review

Ever since MF DOOM fulfilled his villainous role by exiling himself to the United Kingdom and taking the lazy way out of the music industry, coming around once in a blue moon to help boost an artist's notoriety, there's been a serious lack of comic book-inspired Hip-Hop. Arguably the genre's biggest niche, the obsession with heroes and villains committing nefarious acts of violence and vigilante can easily be seen as a comparison point to rappers' own ego. Sometimes acting as the savior, other times the ruthless malefactor, rappers like Inspectah Deck and Esoteric who, along with producer 7L, form Czarface are no stranger to this approach in Hip-Hop. In fact, before cartoon tomfoolery became a topic of discussion from the likes of MF DOOM, Kool Keith, and Del The Funkee Homosapien, a little Rap group known as the Wu-Tang Clan brought Eastern influence in the form of Shaolin shadowboxing to the mean streets of New York circa 1994. The infamous clan, of which Inspectah Deck was a crucial member, went on to inspire other collectives, like Army Of The Pharaohs, who Esoteric and 7L belong to. These three may be two decades removed from their prime, but the relentless Boom Bap and comic book fascination will never grow old.

Much like their two preceding albums, Czarface and Every Hero Needs A Villain, A Fistful Of Peril comes equip with a colorful, comic book cover. However, the style has changed slightly, becoming less gritty and more sleek, which is akin to the music found within. Likely a consequence of releasing a follow-up just a year after their second LP, A Fistful Of Peril, more than any project they've released thus far, is Czarface-centric. There's hardly a prominent feature here, as acts like MF DOOM, GZA, and Action Bronson are nowhere to be seen. So while luminaries won't draw crowds, A Fistful Of Peril still rides on the inimitable chemistry between the three, with Inspectah Deck and Esoteric trading bars consistently as 7L steps away from the sample-heavy comic book scenes to more natural Boom Bap, that's aggressive and constantly thumping. On the surface, with the notable features and stylized canon gone, A Fistful Of Peril isn't anything special. It's the sheer simplicity of it all though, jumping from one track to the next without a break, that allows Peril's 35 minutes to steamroll by in a ball of fire.

Boom Bap, almost by definition, works better when its resources are limited. In this subgenre, the difference in quality between a condensed LP and one that stretches closer to an hour is shocking. There's no fluff here, apart from the quick intro and outro that aim to package Peril in a neat, retro-futuristic world. It's ironic the only bits of serenity come not in the middle but on the absolute outskirts, because once 'Two In The Chest' hits all bets are off as the crunchy drums and rambling percussion cruise under Esoteric's prime-level rhyming. Speaking of lyrical content, the output we see from Czarface is exactly what you'd expect. Sure, it's rapping for rapping sake, but the two seasoned vets present lush imagery that, even if it amounts to nothing, you still have fun digging through. Where Inspectah Deck and Esoteric excel the most when compared to their Boom Bap colleagues though is a forward-thinking level of personality that's unlike most of what 'real Hip-Hop' artists are presenting. Even newer emcees trying to holster the Golden Era up instead of making a new one, like Joey Bada$$, Bishop Nehru, or A-F-R-O, stumble with making an impact thanks to this lack of character. They may be rough and rugged but Inspectah Deck and Esoteric rhyme like a madcap trapped in a comic strip.

As far as the production goes, 7L, at times, brings out the best in Boom Bap. While the self-titled was classic Boom Bap without much finessing and Every Hero Needs A Villain was drenched in the comic allure, Peril attempts to mare them, bringing out aggressive drums, well-used samples, and some rare instrumental juxtapositions. The best example of this is Peril's highlight, 'Dust.' From the get-go it's clear why, as a thunderous sample helps to bring the most out of not only the drums, but the rhyming too. Another standout, 'Steranko,' showcases 7L's versatility, as he jumps hoops through multiple moving parts, swapping beats effortlessly as new emcees come in and out. There's even a couple examples of him eliciting the past efforts from the group, the Wu-Tang Clan on 'Revenge On Lizard City' and Army Of The Pharaohs on 'Tarantulas.' This does exhibit an intrinsic weakness of Boom Bap though, and that's the dated feel it harbors, regardless of when it was made. A few tracks like 'Czar Wars' and 'Talk That Talk' suffer from stale redundancies, failing to bring the liveliness of their nearby compadres.

Lastly it's true that Peril won't achieve the fame, critically or commercially, of its predecessors solely because of the names not attributed to it. While that shouldn't necessarily reduce quality, it does, as hearing Inspectah Deck, Esoteric, and a handful of minor guest spots that don't do all that much to separate themselves from the pack makes it hard to enjoy Peril from a vocal and flow standpoint. Even when the awe of DOOM, GZA, or Method Man wear off, you're still treated to their unusual rhyme styles, unique deliveries, and idiosyncratic vernacular. The rapping on Peril, more or less, is the same throughout, with a couple interesting shifts here and there to keep things interesting. So while it doesn't eclipse its predecessor, the LP still delivers on proving that aging vets, if they've taken the right routes, can be entertaining and not regressive. Czarface's latest should, conceivably, be an album most can enjoy. The personality, charisma, and all out kookiness of a crime-fueled cartoon series that's half Western, half Futuristic will draw the zany underground crowd along with the newer Hip-Hop fans, while the rapping and straight-forward beat work will appeal to Old School fans. A Fistful Of Peril, even at its lowest point, is a crossover record that both sides of the Hip-Hop community can appreciate.

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