When a producer and a rapper commit to a full-length together, it’s reason to rejoice. In an industry that tries very little to reward artists who take chances, a full-length collaboration forces a rapper to speak his own ego to power. There is nothing to hide behind: every track must speak for the whole. These albums make it very difficult to dismiss failed songs as simple missteps, because they force rappers to make singular statements.
At the same time, the team must introduce variety without the crutch of multiple producers. In these cases, it’s much more likely that the two artists were actually in the same place when the music was created, meaning new creative possibilities. Rapper-producer collaborations can define genres: Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother, Waka Flocka Flame’s Flockaveli, and the string of Mannie Fresh-produced albums made during Cash Money’s Hot Boys era defined new forms of rap music that would become dominant in their wake. Killer Mike’s recent R.A.P. Music, on the other hand, has defined the man’s sound after a long career of rapping over production that, with a few major exceptions, never quite seemed to fit his voice. Unfortunately, the likelihood that Reks’ REBELutionary will define a genre or his career seems low.
We must give Reks credit for consistently making true school hip-hop records that do not immediately make me want to put Illmatic on the turntable instead. Neither the beats, nor the rapping on REBELutionary are directly reminiscent of the sounds that clearly inspire them. Both Reks and Numonics show themselves to have their own distinct voice. These voices tend to be at their best at the same time. The album’s best song, “Passports”, features both artists in an uncharacteristically passionate mode. Reks verses slowly, but passionately looks to what he sees as his promising future. The rapping is well-thought out and the chorus is not tedious. Meanwhile, the beat is simple enough–a horn loop in the classic style, but paired with scattershot drums that propel the beat well into the 21st century. Like “Passports,” all of the albums best tracks are defined by deliberate rapping and simple, memorable sampling.
Considering all of his work on REBELutionary, however, Numonics is unwilling to show the kind of singular, unifying sound that this type of album craves. It’s not that the beats from song to song are not similarly produced, but that they lack any distinguishing characteristic other than that they are relatively well-crafted. Even after a few listenings, it will be nearly impossible to pick a Numonics beat out of a lineup.
Reks, similarly, distinguishes himself only through a lack of memorable characteristics. If Reks is anything, he is a highly practiced rapper, but shows very little personality or knowledge of melody. When there are subtleties, they are almost microscopic, drowned in the intense rhyming that surrounds them.
Reks is no stranger to working with a single producer, having recently dropped Straight, No Chaser in April, an album entirely produced by Statik Selektah. Is it possible he no longer sees these albums as opportunities to showcase creativity? On his 2011 LP, he claimed to be the greatest rapper that no one had heard of. In a technical sense, he may have a point. That said, on tracks like “Bang Bang” and “The Edge”, which the album’s least appealing moments, Reks raps like he’s frosting a cake, covering the beat with a layer of fast, complex rhymes so thick that it becomes impenetrable. It can even be hard to figure out exactly which feet of lyrical gymnastics he’s performing. At times it can seem like he hasn’t switched up his flow in minutes. At others, he seems to be changing it so constantly that you can’t keep up. Anywhere in between would be make a much more entertaining listen. When one of the LP’s few featured artists shows up, you’re thankful just to have another voice to listen to, no matter how good it is at rapping.
If Reks did have any goals when he set out to record this album, it seems that they may have been political rather than artistic. Quite often, however, these ideas seem strangely personal and are as hard to decipher as his flow. “Avarice”, for example, is a diatribe against gold digging women that can border on hateful. The track leaves you confused about Reks, rather than convinced of his point. His rhetoric is based upon sound clips, allegorical storytelling, and references to current events. Structurally, its fully conceived, but in the end its the same format that’s been dominating political hip-hop since Public Enemy, only without much of the conviction. Though it is full of pointed commentary, the album is more likely to leave you curious about Reks’s intentions than invigorated by his speech.
The album’s title may be the most confusing piece of all. It’s a simple combination of the words rebel and revolutionary. The difference between the two words is that a rebel simply resists authority while a revolutionary succeeds in overthrowing it. To replace the beginning of one word with the other merely labels the album as similarly contradictory, not to mention unfortunately ironic. REBELutionary is a very well-crafted album, yet it unexpectedly manages to contain very little significantly creative content.