Wordsmith: Vintage Experience
Open with an homage to the golden age, end with considerations of life after death: While Wordsmith doesn't reinvent the hip-hop wheel with Vintage Experience, his new solo album, it isn't because he didn't try. This 20-track concept album divided into four thematic movements--Wordsmith calls it a "movie on wax"--Vintage is ostensibly a musical/lyrical portrait of where hip-hop is/could be right about now. It's ridiculously ambitious, musically all over the place, and occasionally quite stunning. It's also a throwback to those halcyon days when hip-hop artists tried to capture their version of the known world on an album (see also: De la Soul is Dead, A Prince Among Thieves, the Goats' Tricks of the Shade); Wordsmith, after all, is one of many '90s hip-hop disciples active these days. And while Wordsmith and his production partners here--Strada, Professa, J. Stillton, Capish--haven't delivered an instant hip-hop classic, they have created something far more interesting to digest: a brilliant mess.
Could the album's fascinating schizophrenia be due to the many faces Wordsmith's revealed in such a short time? Since his first mixtape, 2006's Statements and Stipulations, Wordsmith has cranked out music at a pace only bettered by Glenn Beck's ability to bloviate bullshit: seven mixtapes, one album, and a ridiculous number of other mixtape appearances. He's apparently handling his own management, too, because he works his own PR online on just about every social-media platform. Sure, the knee-jerk reaction to his flow is that his pinched delivery recalls Talib Kweli, but more interesting is how he's put his verbal gymnastics into a smorgasbord of various settings. He's underground rap's Don Cheadle: confidently competent, constantly working, open to collaborations that push his talent, and you really have no idea what he's all about outside the surrounding context.
And so on Vintage Wordsmith qua Wordsmith rocks an old-school vibe on the album's early tracks about the way hip-hop love used to be (see: "As the Art Fades Away"), becomes a spotlight personality capable of getting asses up off an arena's seats (see: "Rock the Crowd"), and strikes an introspective parental pose over a plinking piano loop and simple one-two beat that flowers into a sultry female voice at the hook (see: "An Ode to My Sons"). Such tracks are pleasantly solid, enjoyable because they're immediately familiar and expected.
But Wordsmith as a singular personality really comes out in tracks less concerned with delivering the vintage goods. The propulsive push of "Hip-Hop 2.0" comes squirting out of the collision of a deep bass throb and an electronic Star Trek phaser blast, over which Wordsmith barks his witty wordplay--"let me test the gravity for a couple minutes/ look how I hover the ground around the outer limits"--with a nimble grace. In "Genre Box," a darting brass and electronics melody underscores Wordsmith's concertinaed lists of name drops, from techno to disco to New Age and Miles Davis to Christina Aguilera to Kirk Franklin. And on the album's standout track, "Wordz for Weaponz," Wordsmith turns an impressive display of breath control into a fighter's pre-fight hype, complete with florid witticisms and run-on inventiveness. Wordsmith undoubtedly possesses a tireless motivation and a refreshing ambition, and if he figures out how to self-edit that restless productivity into a single album of essentials, it'll be damn near indispensable.