Lateef the Truth Speaker - Firewire
Lateef the Truthspeaker has been around for quite a while. As one of the founding members of Quannum Projects, he’s been a part of groups like Latyrx, Maroons, and The Mighty Underdogs. If I approached this album with caution, it’s only because Quannum has lost the luster it once had. I attended the Quannum World Tour in 2004, which featured Blackalicious, Latyrx, Lyrics Born, Maroons, Lifesavas, Gift of Gab, Joyo Velarde, and DJ Shadow. It was a fantastic night, and it felt like they could do no wrong. Everything was right in my wheelhouse, as they went through song after song of funky, socially and politically aware hip hop. However, in the last three or four years, their rate of production has slowed down and the quality drop off has been significant. Albums like The Mighty Underdogs’ Droppin’ Science Fiction and Lyrics Born’s Everywhere at Once hinted at the drop off in '08. They featured weak production and lyrics that were no better than the lamest mainstream hip hop, with emcees discussing male-female relations like a standup comic in the eighties (“How long does it take a woman to get dressed? Am I right?”) and going on at length about fancy vacation spots. The next wave of releases was even worse, including the near unlistenable mixtape from Lateef, Truth is Love. This is all to say that I approached Firewire with extreme caution.
The good news is that the album starts off strong, with “Let’s Get Up,” produced by Chief Xcel. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s definitely Quannum classic, with a funky beat that incorporates horns and congas, recalling the rich history of Bay Area funk. Lateef’s rhymes are fun and playful, adn they hint at deeper issues that might be discussed at length in the following tracks. I didn’t want to go all in, since I’d been burnt before, but I was excited to see some solid hip hop coming from Quannum in what felt like ages. “Oakland” is a great song with a grand, big drum beat as Lateef, Del the Funky Homosapien, and The Grouch all pay tribute to the history of the city’s music and radical politics. “Only Thought” is the first step outside Lateef’s comfort zone, with a Phoenix-style love song. It works surprisingly well, and it compliments the other tracks nicely. “We the People,” which is produced by Chief Xcel sounds good on paper, but their mix of Devo/Kraftwerk synthesizers and mechanical beats combined with R&B female vocals on the hook don’t inspire the “Let’s rise up!” vibe that the lyrics are trying to convey. I don’t fault them for trying something different, but the elements just didn't combine well, and it didn't play to anybody's strength. “Heckuvit” does play up Lateef’s abilities as an emcee, though, with a jazz/funk bass line and tight high hat hits that push the song along while Lateef gets to show off his ability to flow at a very quick pace while navigating through a gentle melodic line. We get our next slip up on “Hardship Enterprise,” with Lyrics Born, which doesn’t necessarily fail lyrically, except for the bad wordplay on Star Trek (“This is the voyage of the Hardship Enterprise”). Unfortunately, any intelligent lyrics get muddled in the mix as a coked-out dance track overshadows everything else. From here on out, it gets much worse. “So Sexy” might be one of the most egotistical romantic songs I’ve ever heard, and I grew up when Shaggy was a star. It features a chorus that puts Lateef in conversation with a female singer, in which they have the following exchange: “Ooh!” “Look who stepped in the room!” “Who?” “Lateef the Truth Speaker, cutie!” “True!” “Wanna go round for round, feeling the pound for pound hardest, I’m down - I’m that dude” The song fades out while the woman repeats the line, “You’re so sexy!” As hard as I try, I just can’t take the song seriously. “Testimony” does an interesting job of mixing elements of hyphy beats and space rock, with a synth bass line and big drum hit laying the foundation before gentle reverb-heavy guitars provide the melody, but the lyrics are again so egotistical and the chorus again so bizarre, that I can’t take the song seriously. “Left Alone” brings in Dan the Automator, but that doesn’t right the ship, as they combine to create a really forgettable indie-dance-pop song. “Say What You Want” has DJ Shadow laying down some interesting psychedlic ‘60s tropicalia beats, but Lateef can’t make a lover’s quarrel sound interesting, and I don’t believe him when he threatens to kill those that betray him. I’m going to go ahead skip going over last two songs and just confirm that Lateef never gets things back on track.
If this was an EP that cut off at “Heckuvit,” we could have had a solid release. Not amazing, but good. Something to restore my faith in what used to be one of my favorite hip hop collectives. Instead, I’m once again left scratching my head, wondering how a group of artists all lost their ability to discern what sounds good. I don’t want to pigeon hole them and say they can’t try anything different, but they should know when things don’t work and when they do, especially lyrically. If I want to listen to terrible R&B/hip hop songs by guys with huge egos, I can turn on the radio and catch whichever Drake or Chris Brown song is on at the moment. When I put on an album expecting politically informed Bay Area hip hop and get something like that? It’s hard not to feel incredibly disappointed.