What does it say when an indie giant’s signees are better than him? That’s what I’ve wondered ever since Kansas City, Missouri, rap duo CES Cru was added to the roster of Strange Music, the label of independent rap kingpin Tech N9ne.
I don’t know what it is about these guys, but I’ve always liked them a little more than Tech himself. Something about the excellent chemistry and interplay between the two MCs, Godemis and Ubiquitous, on the track, combined with their old-school yet very modern style of rapping, gives them a lot more charisma than the legendary Tecca Nina.
While the lyrical sharpness on their sixth full-length offering (and third with Strange Music), Catastrophic Event Specialists, has only gotten better, the beats are a bit of a letdown, to the point where it begins to affect the quality of the record.
Now, I don’t wanna scare people off this record, because it’s definitely worth a listen. Maybe not a buy, but definitely a couple spins on Spotify. These guys are punchline kings, and their lyrics have a more focused theme than on previous albums. They’re taking the old “we’re denouncing mainstream hip-hop” approach this time around. This is about as played out of an underground cliche as you can get, but previously they’ve confined themselves to more general braggadocio, so hearing them speak about the state of hip-hop today from their unique perspective is interesting in and of itself.
They take particular umbrage with the lackadaisical approach to songwriting these days. In “Rubble,” Godemis asks “Whatever happened to the MC?” In lieu of a hook, they play snippets of a conversation between CES Cru about a rapper paying a ghostwriter to write his bars, which is about as pointed a critique as you can get. Other standout tracks like “The Process” have similar grievances. Ubi laments that “The mumble rap-a-thon is on.” This track features some of the hardest rapping from Ubiquitous, featuring rapid-fire staccato internal rhymes.
Unfortunately, shortly after this track, the memorable moments become fewer and farther between. This highlights the album’s other problem: there’s just too many damn tracks on this thing. None of them are bad per se, but this album is still in dire need of an editor, and you could pretty much lose the last third with little consequence.
Oh, but then you’d miss out on Tech N9ne’s feature, which is probably the least memorable appearance from the Killer Clown of rap in recent memory. It’s highly technical and full of punches you’d expect, but that’s it. Tech raps fast about how much he likes sex. Golf clap, Tech. Did you write that one during lunch break? You’re better than this.
On another critical note, I have to bring up the beats again. I have no problem with trap beats, and there are a lot of trap beats I love, but man, these are just so bland. Not bad, just not distinct at all. They’re very boilerplate, and they contain none of the charisma of beats from earlier tracks in their career like “Ion Dat,” “Klick Clack Bang” and “Juice.”
You’d think there would be more variation with, holy crap, six producers on this record, but it’s all tainted by the hand of Michael “Seven” Summer, Strange Music’s longtime in-house beatsmith. I’ve been lukewarm on Seven’s output for several years. His consistently bland sensibilities are at their most unremarkable on Catastrophic Event Specialists.
Like I said, they’re not bad, but they’re completely interchangeable. You could take any of Ubi and Goddy’s verses on this album, splice them onto another beat from the record, and you wouldn’t hear anything out of place. It’s practically a miracle that the two MCs manage to keep their rhymes as tight as they do, and they should be commended for always putting the rapping first in rap music.
I’ve said it before, but Strange Music is only hurting itself artistically by keeping everything in-house. MCs as dynamic as CES Cru would really benefit from an equally creative producer, but that is verboten in the cult-like temple of Strange.
Having a roster of artists as talented as the ones in Strange Music and forcing them to only work with a producer like Seven is like having the freshest, most delicious fruit and then just throwing it in plain instant oatmeal: yeah, it makes the product as a whole better, but you’re still squandering flavor on a bunch of sloppy, overdone crap.
Although this is not a bad album, it’s probably the duo’s weakest offering to date. At worst, it’s average, and it’s all because of the completely faceless beats. These veteran MCs are still razor-sharp. If you can get past the lazily thrown together 808s and synth runs, you’ll find a golden vein of top-notch lyricism and buttery flows.
Contact CU Independent Arts Editor Thomas Roller at firstname.lastname@example.org.