Labtekwon: Di Na Ko Degg
Local hip-hop enigma Labtekwon has never been known for brevity--this would be his 24th release in 15 years--but clocking in at an hour and 17 minutes the rapper's latest, Di Na Ko Degg, could be considered a beast. And, mind you, that's a strong "could be." What makes the record so remarkable is that it never hits the tedium you might expect from 23 tracks of rhymes from one MC and, mostly, one producer (Professor Max Mineblo).
Labtekwon is Baltimore's Mos Def, a message rapper with enough finesse and class to pull off message rap. Hearing lines such as "There's many kinds of fiends/ some are addicted to the American dream," "Since the 13th Amendment and then after, negroes still bend down to their master," and "pop culture's allergic to artistry" from a rapper from Baltimore rapping for Baltimore, where there really aren't enough "backpackers" to freight his words with that kind of fake genre baggage, lends things a sincerity that many socially/politically/etc. aware rappers miss. Like, props to Mos Def, but dude's a movie star.
Mineblo's engagingly eclectic productions on Di Na Ko Degg will feel familiar--some tracks recall RZA's dense, ornate instrument-heavy work on 36 Chambers, while others are DJ Premier spare and precise. The sub-bass, from-a-tin-can samples, and ambient backdrop of "Cry For U" even nod to dubstep. It's enough to keep you interested as this sprawling record keeps on sprawling. Good thing: Degg is too long not to notice that Labtekwon isn't that dynamic as a rapper--he has an evenly paced, forceful flow that serves its purpose just fine, but it's ultimately a bit utilitarian. The record boasts one Baltimore club track, "Break It Down," where the rapper gets palpably excited, boasting (over a C&C Music Factory sample) "Lab is good/ Lab is great/ c'mon little homie, let me illustrate."
If anyone were to doubt where Labtekwon is coming from--Baltimore, Baltimore, Baltimore--his work in the 410 Pharaohs should clear that right up. The Pharaohs' 410 Funk, arguably the first album-long collaboration between straight rapping and straight (raw, native) Baltimore club, tracks way back to late-'80s hip-house/proto-club in a way that arguably hasn't happened in the 20-odd-year interim.
Next to Degg, this is a wholly different Lab, and it's not just in the beats. On top of "classic" club productions from fellow Pharaohs DJ Booman and Jimmy Jones, the rapper sounds energized in a way that maybe only a quick club breakbeat can do. He's a party rapper here, boasting and shouting out to Baltimore's compass points ("Phony"), spitting about girls, while boasting ("X Boogie," winking toward "Percolator," "Go Down"), and generally just chucking didacticism (however mild) in favor of fun. Take "Big Girl," with Jimmy Jones chant-rapping almost melodically while trading with Lab's quick-footed rhymes about just how we need to praise "big girls." Or later on, when Lab is calling out "sweat your brains out/ sweat your weave out" for the folks getting down to a Labtekwon verse (who'd a thunk).
This isn't to say 410 Funk is callow. Far from it--Labtekwon is just lighter, and maybe slicker, about making his points. On the album's intro track, "Hammer Dance," he delivers the lingering, poignant lines "There's more to Baltimore than the violence in the streets and the pain and the suffering/ there's love in Baltimore/ beautiful funky people full of flavor and soul/ we want you to take a trip down this black brick road to the dark dance holes of our city." When he raps/questions with Q-Tip litheness on "Biterz," "How you like that, Lab on a club track?" there's really only one answer.