The story of Slum Village is in some ways the stuff of legend. A spirited American tragedy that could be epic if ever put to script and screen by the proper scribe. Critics and fans alike have fiendishly documented the highs and lows of the group’s time line. Even with a wealthy archive of knowledge there is still mystery to their personal and musical journeys. The mythological scope of Dilla’s sound, the addition of Elzhi’s lyrical wizardry, the odd and complicated departure of Baatin, the heartbreak caused by Dilla’s passing, the emergence of his younger brother Illa J, the shocking passing of Baatin, and the current drama between T3 and Elzhi as SV reaches its eminent demise, are all found within Villa Manifesto. In all honesty it’s what has made writing this review such a difficult task. There is a heavy sense of nostalgia and down right feeling of debt owed to one of the last groups looked to as the descendents of the Native Tongue family tree. Though Slum Village has never allowed their sound to be pigeonholed as throwback, backpack or underground, the final notes of their collective musicology closes a chapter in the experience of a particular group of older hip-hop heads. This is not only about reviewing Villa Manifesto, but also about trying to detail how dope and important Slum Village was to the past decade of left-center-rap music.
Without a doubt SV has left its minor and major marks across the spectrum of rap’s part in hip-hop culture. Over the past 10 years while many clung to a limiting divide between mainstream and underground, SV has always merged mainstream sentiment with underground sensibility. This critical synthesis has allowed for some mainstream success and critical praise. With their sixth studio album, SV runs through and highlights the gamut of their sound: thick elastic bass-lines, funk-saturated drums, hypnotic loops and chops or live instrumentation, an uncanny use of vocal cadences, verses so full of personality content is subterfuge, and their uncompromising element of expressing fun. The neck quickly snaps to the uniquely quantized tribal-esque rhythm of “Um Um”, which makes one reminisce of “Stupid Ass Lies”, as a battle of the sexes ensues. The fitting collaboration with Little Brother, “Where Do We Go From Here”, is both tuff as clay left out in the sun and haunting as a loved one passing. “We’ll Show You” has ethereal beginnings that give way to a broodingly heavy synth bass and Tim-boot stomping minimal drums, that juxtapose Ab’s singing, mirror SV’s career highs-n-lows. Simply it’s a nut-crabbin’ moment for Illa J, T3 and Baatin in the face of doubters and haters.
Furthermore the return of Baatin adds a dynamic to Slum Village lost in their previous efforts. His verbal stylings and musings on “Dance”, “The Set Up” and “Bare Witness” elevate the songs from familiar territory to new gems. Yet, it is also SV’s struggle with sonic familiarity and new territory that can bring the album down at times. “Lock It Down” (the familiar) is filler, “Faster” (the new) is a turgid attempt at radio, and “Don’t Fight The Feeling” just sounds limp at the median of the album. Furthermore, Elzhi has a glaringly minimal role on the album. Whether this is because of the recent airing out of the group’s problems or just part of the recording process, his immense talent as a rapper should have been maximized for their last effort. Elzhi is ironically missing from arguably the album’s finest moment “The Reunion Pt. 2”. Along angelic harmonizing, spacey sound arrangements, and chunky percussion, Baatin without censor retraces his history within the group, and T3 vigorously pours out his recent pains and frustrations.
So with these thoughts the question arises, is Villa Manifesto a triumphant march into a fading light? In some ways yes, and in others no. It stands near the vast light of Vol. 2, the rare treasure of Vol. 1 (before it’s re-release), the over-looked remarkableness of J-88 and Trinity, but outshines Detroit Deli and Slum Village. Villa Manifesto does what the title states: it vividly captures the loss, joy and solemnity of the group. It spans the generations of its members, affiliates and sounds. It’s a definitive final product in their catalogue. Where other groups have disappeared, whimpered out, or begrudgingly refused to step out of the limelight, Slum Village with all its loss and drama leave on a solid note of strength and passion. SV for life!