It can be difficult when reviewing an album to separate the art from the artist. Often-times discussions of a rapper’s past works, associated acts and their role in various movements overwhelm independent consideration of the record’s actual songs. This holds especially true when one tries to evaluate U-God’s new album, The Keynote Speaker. So while it might be fun to weigh in on obvious tangents (if after two-plus decades we can agree upon a weak link in the Wu-Tang, what it means for the clan’s abbot to be back in the executive producer chair, their much anticipated anniversary album and what rap music should sound like when made by a man in his forties), I am going to focus only on the 48 minutes U-God gives us with his fourth solo-release. Doing so reveals a severely mediocre project whose grimy, throwback boom-bap high-points are contrasted by boring bars and hit-or-miss production.
U-God is blessed with a great voice. It rumbles and gurgles from the depths like gunk bubbling out of a primeval tar pit, while remaining surprisingly nimble. Unfortunately he rarely lends this gift to rhymes of any great significance or originality. Instead, he fills his verses with standard tough guy tropes that are for the most part mildly interesting but rarely rewind-worthy and even occasionally embarrassingly simplistic (“ready and able / cause my blows are more fatal / I’m the human tornado”). Perhaps because of the predictable banality of the majority of the lines, the most engaging moments come when the rapper born Lamont Jody Hawkins drops the fatigued super-gangsta persona and offers a more honest glimpse into his life. For example when he raps “I took a purple rock candy at the dub step festival / Yo, I’m signing autographs / started feeling like a vegetable” on “Room Keeps Spinning” it’s impossible to not be amused when imagining The Universal God of Law with pupils the size of dandelions, tripping out amongst glow-stick wielding EDM enthusiasts. U-God’s bland verses are supplemented with a solid cast of guests including GZA, Inspectah Deck, Styles P, Kool Keith and Elzhi. And Method Man, whose flow and cadence could persuade you to nod your head to a recitation of a 1980s Xerox repair manual, provides a track-stealing verse with an interesting rhyme scheme and rhythm on “Fire”.
More than a few sub-par MCs have built hugely successful careers thanks to their abilities to select stellar beats, and all previously mentioned lyrical shortcomings could be forgiven if this album was stuffed with end-to-end bangers. Unfortunately the production on Keynote Speaker is severely lopsided with classic boom bap offerings juxtaposed by irritating missteps. With the exception of three RZA tracks, most of the production is handled by relative unknowns (Leaf Dog, DJ Homicide, Teddy Powell) who are not likely to gain notoriety based on their work here. The oozing soul samples and dusty drums of tracks like “Golden Arms” do well to conjure the sonic scenes of dank, Shaolin slum backrooms showered in blunt ash and bullet casings. During the album’s finest moments, it’s easy to get confused and imagine the songs were recorded in a pre-hipster-gentrified borough and are blasting out from your mid-’90s Discman. Unfortunately, some of the beats sound dated and provide proof as to why producers have been tinkering with and evolving that sound over the past twenty years. The tinfoil-thin drums on “Heads Up”, the repetitive vocal loops on “Heavyweight”, and chintzy synths on “Stars” are tough to listen to without tapping the skip button.
Negatives aside, there are a few nice moments on Keynote Speaker, and devoted fans will certainly enjoy hearing U-God’s familiar gravelly growl as he offers bars of expected braggadocio. The album however, is unlikely to convince those who haven’t been too interested in his past work, and has little chance of attracting much attention in a market saturated with more interesting, experimentally-minded hip hop and polished examples of traditional boom bap.
2.5 out of 5
You can buy The Keynote Speaker on Amazon.