Thursday, June 21, 2007

Lifesavas - "Guttafly" Album Review

Lifesavas – Guttafly
**** ½

It’s hard to define a classic hip hop album. I’m not sure if it’s because the music’s catalogue is only about 30 years old (if you count the release of “Rappers Delight” as the music’s official birth) and there aren’t many definitive works to compare new releases against, or if it’s because a classic hip hop album is so different than the best of other genres. Sure, there are a number of releases that sit on the bubble and can fall easily either way, but that said, I surmise it’s not necessarily describing the album so much as processing the feeling one gets from actually listening that is the truly difficult part of giving the creation that timeless label.

What’s easy to understand though, is that classic hip hop records launch stars from obscurity or solidify reputations more powerfully than other genres because so much depends on an emcee’s credibility. That fact makes hip hop unique, and it’s understood a classic album attains that status because of the story and character behind the music that’s already so good. “Guttafly,” the latest release from Portland’s brightest stars, Lifesavas, fits somewhere in between. Mainstream America has no idea who Lifesavas are, but their underground fanbase is huge and extremely protective, mainly because Lifesavas make accessible music. And that’s where the argument for “classic” begins.

“Guttafly” has been described as a concept album, but the duo, emcee/producer Jumbo the Garbageman and emcee Vursatyl, maintain that wasn’t the intent when they began recording it. More accurately, they’ve explained in interviews, “Guttafly” was inspired by Baraka Feldman’s obscure film concept by the same name, several blaxploitation films of the 70’s like “Coonskin” and of course, the Zatoichi series of Japanese cult films. The album allowed Lifesavas to step into the minds of imagined characters (Bumpy Johnson – Vurs, Sleepy Floyd – Jumbo, and Jimmy Slimwater – played by DJ Shines) and reveal more of themselves through that experience.

From jumpstreet, the album has a rich, hypnotic feeling. Interludes tie the songs/scenes together, and ratchet up the tension and overall mood quite effectively. More importantly, though, the beats bang with a tough organic, live-instrument quality that hip hop is missing today (think harder Soulquarians or Roots band music). But even then, Jumbo and the few guest beatsmiths are able to lace enough odd tweaks and clicks and blips in each track to remind you that hip hop production was born out of sampling. It creates a lush landscape here for the emcees, and they capitalize on it. Every song has a mature feel and evokes a swagger and command usually reserved for hip hop’s greatest storytellers. It’s a treat to hear Jumbo and Vurs, with two distinct styles, bounce effortlessly together over the production, from the staccato “Shine Language” to the syrupy-smooth “No Surprise.”

The choice of chorus’ are interesting, too, like a mix of underground lyricism and mainstream melody. “Serpents Love” is a perfect example. The title doesn’t roll off the tongue, but it’s a slick and sexy enough song that it was one of Stuff Magazine’s Top 10 Downloads. The track is gritty; I can see the instrumental providing a Bruce Lee film with some great stalking music or even have the lyrics explain a few frames of recon work in a Smokin Aces-type movie. There’s a sing-along and breakdown element to each song (“Dead Ones”), but it’s done so well that it does nothing to interrupt the flow of each song. Each part of the song works together to enhance another.

But I think the illest part about the album is that each track borderlines on commercial appeal. “Superburn” is a braggadocious joint with the right format and energy to be a hit, no doubt. Yet it’s comparable to all those De La joints that keep the crowd hyped at a show but still have pop kids driving home from school wondering if it is cool enough to dance to. The title track has the most potential for cross-over, and I’d go as far to say that if Kanye’s name was on it, you’d see it on 106 and Park tomorrow (he’d of course let everyone know that his name was on it, too, though, so it’s hard to imagine it not being a hit).

I can’t say enough about this album. There’s so much going on, but it’s all so simple and natural to the ear that all you can do is embrace the feeling in your gut and your chest, that tightness, that calm excitement that tells you you’re hearing something special for the first time. “Guttafly” is a tremendous achievement, ya’ll, it’s a collection of songs that spans the absolutism of obscurity and respect mentioned earlier, but beyond that, it acts as a coming out party for a group with the potential to put a new face on hip hop. It’s genre-bending because it’s accessible, sensible, sexy underground music. This album hit me like Mos Def’s “Black On Both Sides,” one of my fav albums of all time. And with Common, Kanye and Lupe all gearing up for impending releases, Joell Ortiz’s gem “The Brick,” and Talib Kweli’s “Eardrum” and Pharaohe’s “Desire” on the horizon, this year could be an excellent one for hip hop.

If you’re still lost, think of “Guttafly” as a more accessible turn of Little Brother’s “The Minstrel Show.” I loved that album, but there wasn’t the continuity that “Guttafly” has, or even the overall individual build-up with each song. Bottom-line, Lifesavas have turned in a record that’s classic with a lowercase “c.” I’ll let ya’ll fight over the true, correct grammatical nature of it, though. John said.

- john public