Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: Inspectah Deck and 7L & Esoteric - Czarface

Let me address this before I do anything else. Yes, this album is called Czarface, and yes, that is a terrible, awful name. I’m willing to bet that Deck, Eso, and 7L thought this name sounded cool and no one in their respective circles felt like chiming in to tell them how dumb Czarface actually sounds.[1] Get past the name, however, and there’s a lot about this project that’s worth getting excited about. In spite of the diminishing quality of his solo albums since 1999’s Uncontrolled Substance, Inspectah Deck never fell off as a rapper.[2] Instead, Deck’s weaknesses are in the beat selection and album crafting departments. Deck’s ear for beats is often terrible and his albums have accordingly come out disjointed, repetitive, and generic. When he has an executive producer or someone else guiding the project, as he did on Uncontrolled Substance, he ends up with a much better collection of beats and a more satisfying album than he does otherwise. So in spite of Esoteric’s deficiencies as a rapper—one can only have so much patience for interchangeable verses about how good he is at rapping—Deck choosing to link up with 7L and Esoteric for an album was a shrewd choice. 7L is a very good but occasionally generic producer, and Esoteric is much better at putting together listenable and satisfying albums than Deck is. Deck and 7L & Esoteric balance out each other’s worst qualities.

Also promising is the album’s cover, which looks like something that would have been drawn by Jack Kirby if he had developed his style in the late eighties and nineties instead of several decades earlier. The cover hints at a comic book theme for Czarface that is immediately appealing and would serve to help Deck achieve the focus that he has so much trouble sustaining on his solo albums. The intro, which recalls MF Doom’s interludes on Operation: Doomsday and references the money-seeking superpowered title character of the album, along with several of the track names (“Marvel Team-Up” being the most obvious) give the initial impression that the album would really commit to that theme. Unfortunately, the comic book stuff is mostly a surface affectation rather than a major aspect of the album. Comic characters show up in the lyrics, but mostly as part of metaphors for the two rappers’ own abilities.

Still, Deck sounds great here. His first line on the album is the ridiculous but endearing “Wonder Twin powers activate, form of some fly shit,” and he remains just as entertaining across the thirteen tracks that follow. He’s always been just behind Method Man as having the second-best flow in the Wu, and he weaves around 7L’s beats in a way that frequently recalls his earliest work and  audibly having fun with this project. When he opens “World War 4” with the lines “Groove disciple, rude since high school/ Moves on the floor like the shoes of Michael/ You say your king, this dude's the rightful/ 50 cal flow, soundproof the rifle,” it’s hard not to think about the kind of bouncy cadence that was his trademark circa-“Protect Ya Neck.” Proximity to an MC of Deck’s caliber seems to have lit a fire under Esoteric, who turns in some of the better work of his career on “Dead Zone” and on “Poisonous Thoughts,” his high point on the album. Moreover, trading verses with someone else on every song prevents Eso’s verses from completely blending together. And while 7L’s beats are often overly utilitarian—grimy sample, boom bap drums, little personality—the ones he put forth for the album and the way they’re sequenced keeps the album moving forward at a nice clip.

7L and Esoteric’s curatorial abilities extend to Czarface’ guests as well. Action Bronson phones it in a bit, and even though his lyrics are great as always Roc Marciano sounds much less comfortable over 7L’s energetic “Cement 3’s” beat than he does over his own quietly menacing production, but Oh No, Ghostface,[3] Cappadonna, and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire all turn in great verses that allow for some well-placed tonal shifts throughout the album. Even Vinnie Paz, whose never-changing cadence and seeming unwillingness to abandon the same three or four lyrical topics have made every one of his albums since Violent by Design a slog, isn’t able to wear out his welcome. On the production side of things, DJ Premier provides the only outside beat on “Let it Off.” It’s standard issue late-period Premo, which means that it’s reliably good, but since the only other Deck/Premier collaboration was “Above the Clouds,” “Let it Off” is inevitably a tremendous disappointment by comparison.

This is ultimately a fine album that could have been so much better if Deck and Esoteric hadn’t been so content to fall back on the same frequently-generic braggadocio that has made up Eso’s entire career thus far. Had they leaned further into the comic book theme and really tried to put something together that stands apart from the rest of their respective catalogs, the trio could have come up with something with more substance and more longevity. As it stands, Czarface feels hollow, and outside of its best tracks it is unlikely that many people will still be reaching for this record a few years from now. In the short term though, it gives a great, concise dose of head-knocking boom-bap, which partially outweighs the disappointment that this album doesn’t live up to its potential.

"World War 4"

"Savagely Attack" (feat. Ghostface Killah)

[1] There is a skit at the end of “Let it Off” where Esoteric tries to get a very young child (presumably his son) to say Czarface in a menacing way, and the little kid seems more aware of how ridiculous it sounds than Eso is.
[2] See his guest verses on Raekwon’s “House of Flying Daggers” and “Black Mozart” and on Ghostface’s Twelve Reasons to Die album, his appearances on Wu-Tang Chamber Music, his incredible verse on “Take it Back” from the last Wu-Tang Clan album 8 Diagrams, and his amazing solo song “The Champion” for a few examples of Deck’s continued skill as a rapper.
[3] I can only imagine how much better Ghostface’s verse about taking bath salts and eating faces on “Savagely Attack” would have been had it been written in the Supreme Clientele days.

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