Wednesday, September 12, 2007
9th Wonder - The Dream Merchant, Vol. 2: Review
There is this cliché when discussing controversial figures in music, movies, sports or art when they are described as both simultaneously as overrated and underrated at the same time but in this case, it really is the best way to describe 9th Wonder as a hip hop producer. To his haters, he is a formulaic wannabe Native Tongue biter who is extremely limited in his scope of the music he produces. To his fans, he is the sound of the modern underground rap (or more accurately “backpack” rap music today) and is one of the best young producers working in Rap today. The truth (like everything else in the world) lies somewhere in between these extremes. 9th Wonder is a rather limited producer. His aesthetic of Fruity Loops chopped soul samples, ethereal disembodied vocal samples and processed clipped drums is rather limited and formulaic but he also happens to be really, really good at his formula. He is kind of a modern day Primo (and not Kanye West who isn’t really like Primo at all -- no matter what Lonnie Lynn tells you) in the sense that he has an established formula that he doggedly sticks to but happens to really make good music out of that formula. This persistence in sticking with this formula is probably one of the main reasons that 9th split with Little Brother back earlier this year. As I mentioned in another post previously, I felt that Little Brother’s previous success was primarily due to the signature 9th Wonder sound rather than Pooh and ‘Te’s rapping so I had a decent amount of anticipation for 9th Wonder’s new solo effort, The Dream Merchant Vol. 2, and have been secretly dreading The Getback. Well, I heard the record and I’m sort of ambivalent about the experience. For the most part, Dream Merchant is an enjoyable if not quite memorable record.
Let’s start off with the reason that we are here in the first place, 9th Wonder’s production. Like expected, 9th sticks with a sound that is exactly in his strike zone and should please hardcore 9th Wonder and underground rap fans. There isn’t any Kanye-esque musical exploration on this album nor is this anything that is really, really boring or formulaic on this album. Its the same chopped soul samples, processed Fruity Loop pack drums, and disembodied vocal samples in his previous work but in this case, 9th Wonder has really come into his own as a producer. This album sounds more polished and fuller than his earlier work with Little Brother as it seems he doesn’t quite rely as much on his traditional precisely computer chopped loops. The album sounds slightly dirtier than his previous work which is a nice change of pace. Don’t get it twisted, he hasn’t eschewed completely with the “Fruity Loopiness” of his album but he does allow the music to breathe a bit more than in the past The album is also slightly more uptempo than his previous work as well as songs like “Brooklyn In My Mind”, “Reminisce (Take That)”, “Let It Bang” are true hardcore bangers (Once, again. Use Of “Bangers”, Eww...) and have a harder veneer than his work with Little Brother. The album doesn’t have any Dilla-esque mid-tempo love jams that you got on 9th’s previous work. Its definitely a “harder” album than his previous work.
The aspect that lags on the album and keeps Dream Merchant from being a truly excellent outing is of course, the song-writing and rapping on this album. Now, don’t get it confused, the rapping on this album is actually pretty good. The vocals on this album are mostly handled by 9th Wonder’s Justus League Crew and while most of them are fairly talented (if boring) lyricists, they all kind of fall into Wu-Tang Killa Bee territory of being all fairly un-charismatic (with the exception of Skyzoo who only appears twice on the record and Chaundon who appears once) as well. The problem with producer driven records is that in order for them to be successful you need a unifying voice that appears on repeatedly on the record to help bring cohesion to the affair. For example, Prince Paul’s criminally underrated, A Prince Among Thieves, is the perfect example of this where newcomers Breeze and Sha help craft a story for the record with their repeated guest appearances (and of course, The Chronic is the ultimate example because of course, its The fucking Chronic). Instead, the vocals on this record fall into a mishmash of newcomers, weed carriers, and Justus League affiliates. Instead, we get a record that sounds more like a compilation and instead of a true album. The only way to make a compilation truly work is get A-List rappers like Jay-Z, Nas, T.I. and Lil’ Wayne and haven them rip up their verses but the most recognizable names we get are Mos Def, Saigon, Sean Price and Memphis “I Can’t Believe Kanye Is Trying To Weasel His Way Into Jay’s Will With That Big Brother Shit” Bleek. All of them are talented rappers but they aren’t quite A-List.
There are a few really good gems of songs on this record, though. Chaundon assisted “Sunday” is a breezy little ode to his favorite day of the week that brings an understated sweetness and warmth to the proceedings, “Brooklyn In My Mind” 9th’s Crooklyn Dodgers remake with Mos Def, Jean Grae and Memphis Bleek is a song that despite its detractors is a song that really knocks, and “Baking Soda” with Big Treal is perhaps the album’s highlights. Big Treal has a nice warmth, and playful flow reminiscent of one of the dudes from Goodie Mob (I don't care enough about Goodie Mob to do the research here but he definitely sounds like one of them...not Cee-Lo, though....) that adds humor to an ode to everybody’s Southern rappers favorite subject, selling cocaine. He is an interesting Southern newcomer (which of course, immediately means he will never have a career) and might check him for in the future if he sticks around. The best work provided on the album is Justus League affiliates though is Skyzoo, the Papoosian named dude who stole the show on Little Brother’s “Speed Racin’” last year, who criminally only appears on two songs (both of them really good). If 9th builds an album around Skyzoo in the Snoop role then they might be really onto something.
The album is fairly good for the most part. If you are fan of the Justus League or underground rap music than this album is definitely worth a look if not your hard earned money. If you hate the 9th Wonder sound than you’ll probably want to avoid this because its more of the same but unlike artists like 50 Cent who doggedly stick to formula, 9th’s is still working. Its still dope beats, dope rhymes... Honestly, what the fuck do you want?