In an Internet-driven music culture, not much can sneak up on listeners. Between “leaks,” previews and the sheer number of online reviews/resources available to music fans, there aren’t many mysteries on Tuesdays in 2010. Gas Mask, the debut release from The Left (producer Apollo Brown, emcee Journalist 103 and DJ Soko) is definitely a product of that environment – with a twist. The album has blazed up the ‘net, with blogs posting reviews of advance copies and many proclaiming Gas Mask as the best release of the year, if not the decade. The fact that there were no leaks, no available downloads and no apparent bootlegging only added to the album’s mystique.
On October 26, the Internet sensation was released to the masses – and it was most certainly worth the wait.
The opening track, the aptly named “Change”, sets the tone for the rest of the album. An almost bluesy vocal sample eventually gives way to a pounding beat and Soko’s incredible work on the 1s and 2s. By the time the album’s title track kicks in, the listener is hooked by the combination of another soulful vocal sample, pounding drums and horns that would make Pete Rock smile. Then Journalist 103 joins the fray. His aggressive flow matches the track’s pace and atmosphere, while his lyrics, dealing with the current state of hip-hop, bring the song to that next level.
Not content to rest on their laurels, The Left invite the legendary Kool G Rap to join them on the very next track, “Frozen”. Apollo Brown steps up the aggression on the production tip, with a track that sounds like the very best of the Golden Era – without sounding dated. Both Journalist and G Rap sound natural on the track and both turn in outstanding vocal performances. It’s definitely a track that will have you hitting rewind.
Kool G Rap’s inclusion on the album is appropriate, as Apollo Brown’s production seems to draw on the finest our genre has to offer, from the Golden Era to today: the aforementioned horns that would make the Chocolate Boy Wonder proud; bass lines influenced by the work of his fellow Detroit producer J. Dilla; strings that Premier himself would go crazy for; and hard hitting drums that Marley Marl would most certainly appreciate and recognize.
Gas Mask is also very clearly influenced by The Left’s surroundings. This is a Detroit record: full of grit, yet still very soulful – appropriate for Motown. Journalist 103 matches the mood of the album’s production with lyrics that capture his city. On “Real Detroit”, featuring Marv Won (previously released on Apollo Brown’s The Reset, but with different production here), the two MCs offer listeners a glimpse of their city and Apollo Brown serves up a foreboding track to match the lyrics. The Motor City is also the subject on “Reporting Live” featuring Guilty Simpson – and the track is an absolute banger (I’m sensing a theme here) that sheds more light on the development of some of hip-hop’s finest.
Although the album is clearly influenced by Detroit, the city isn’t the only topic on Gas Mask. Journalist offers up personal narratives about his journey to the microphone (“Desperation”), a love song that doesn’t give in to conventional metaphors and clichés (“The Melody”), a tribute to those who have influenced him along the way (“Homage” featuring Frank West) and, of course, an ode to the death of wack MCs (“The Funeral”).
Gas Mask is 17 tracks of pure hip-hop. No filler. No fluff. The album’s guests, including those previously mentioned, as well as Paradime, Finale, Mu, Invincible and Hassaan Mackey, only add to the dopeness. When you consider the praise heaped on this album prior to its release, and the fact that it delivers, and exceeds the accompanying high expectations from listeners, The Left’s debut elevates into rarified air. While the “C” word is often thrown around, Gas Mask certainly deserves the label – and looks good wearing it.