For those of us outside of Detroit, the first time we heard Guilty Simpson rap was on Champion Sound’s “Strapped”. He led the song off sounding like a bear calmly eating its prey near a frigid river stream. His bully rap about sticking his legs out in the theater aisle and seeing if you had the courage to ask him to move was as vivid and comedic as vintage Mobb Deep.
As Guilty’s verses began to pollinate the tracks of producers like Dilla, Madlib, and Black Milk for the next three-four years, it was easy to group him into the category of a one-dimensional gangster rapper. It was a rap identity driven home by his 2008 debut Ode To The Ghetto, which was ripe with themes of fists, bitches, robbery, and gun smoke. The album had gusto, but also came across dull at points. Two years later, Guilty and Madlib crafted their disjointed full length OJ Simpson, which had gems like the Dilla tribute “Cali Hills” hidden between the bewildering over-kill interludes. The album came off like great gangster rap on a bad acid trip.
In a way it was beginning to seem that Guilty worked best within single songs, or a group setting, highlighted by his dominating performances on last year’s Random Axe LP. But with little promotion and alongside rap production’s Chevy Charger Apollo Brown, Guilty has crafted his best work to date. Not only is Dice Game a more mature, reflective, narrative-based Simpson, it’s an album that comes across as a complete statement through short and direct songs.
“Let’s Play” wonderfully interpolates ODB’s classic croon at the beginning of “C.R.E.A.M.” for three minutes of Guilty’s machista sex tales. It’s a perfect winter season record in which Apollo shows how to refreshingly flip familiar sounds. Later, “I Can Do No Wrong” is a soulful blast of crunchy horns and G. I. Joe drums that finds Guilty detailing how he’s developed his career path and the difficult decisions he’s made as a result. Near the album’s end, “Never Ending Story” is a stirring narrative of the personal knowledge Guilty has gained in his life over a moving and elegant assortment of strings Apollo places next to each other like a Bearden collage.
Overall, Dice Game is about describing rap as a life choice: an unforgiving game of chance that reaps powerful spiritual benefits and insights, but leaves one stressed and weary. Therefore, with Guilty and Apollo fully understanding their strengths as rapper and producer, the songs on the album have an empowered quality. Sure at times the album’s tone seems to monotonously bleed from one song to the next and Guilty is not everybody’s cup of tea stylistically or technically, but that doesn’t derail the album’s forceful momentum.
It would be difficult to say which track should have been cut, or that “hard-body raps” Guilty is missed even. “How Will I Go”, “Dear Jane” and “Ink Blotches” are great rap records full of earnestness and true school knock that display the raw and refined elements of rap music. I get a sense Dice Game will be left off many list concerning the year’s best, but it shouldn’t be left off your radar. Your speakers and head space will thank you for it.