As a fan of much of Detroit producer on-the-rise Apollo Brown's often immaculate work, I couldn't believe my ears when I heard the news that he and a certain legendary hip-hop veteran had recorded a full album worth of material together. The rapper in question was OC; one of the most talented rappers out of the whole D.I.T.C. squad (which is saying more than a lot) and overall one of my absolute favorites to ever grab a microphone. The resuling "Trophies" will hit stores on May 1 via Mello Music Group; not only on CD and MP3-files but as two different versions of a double vinyl set as well. To say the least, I had extremely high expectations for the album, something that all too often makes for a dissapointing listen the first few times, so when I recently got my hands on a fully mastered review-ex of the project I immediatly hit play and let the album run straight through and has been repeating this ritual twice every day now since I first came across it. Being from what is probably my two favorite cities in U.S.A. when it comes to hip-hop these days; I couldn't imagine a collaboration with a very talented Detroit beatologist and the Brooklyn born and raised Omar Credle (OC) being anything less than at least very solid. Aight, let's get to the music...
After a laid back intro explaining the choice of title for the album, things kicks off in a beautiful way with "The Pursuit"; featuring OC on his A-game, spitting three verses filled to the limits with quotables. Apollo flips the same sample previously heard on Pete Rock's "Made Man" but although it's obviously inspired, Brown totally makes it his own. Filled with trademark miniature vocal samples and his typical heavy drum kicks which really suits the emcee well. It's interesting that they chose to open the LP with this joint as it's not one of the harder tracks on the album; rather a pretty laid back cut that puts and emphazises the emcee at the forefront.
"Prove Me Wrong" was the first single to be released from the album and it's still as good as when I first heard it. I even have to say that in my opinion it's one of the absolute top tracks of the entire album so it was good choice to lead with. You should already have heard this so I won't bother writing much more about it than to say that, both from a production standpoint and as far as OC's lyrics and vocal performance goes, this will be a future classic, no doubt about it.
"Nautica" is the first cut to take a more sinister approach as Apollo Browns does a great job mixing a slamming drum pattern, mysitcal strings that change form between verses and the heavy vocal hook. The main theme of the song, however, is the steadily repeating, dark bass line created via synthesizer.
"Another One" is another one of my favorites from "Trophies" and has got to be the best weed anthem from the D.I.T.C. camp since at least OC & AG's 2001 track "Weeds & Drinks" from "Bon Appetit". OC smoothly and straight up incredible kicks three verses explaining how his love for the herb manifests in his everyday life, and in usual O fasion it's a very personal jam that's so vivid you could almost see him lighting blunt after blunt. This laid back beauty wouldn't sound out of place on '97s classic "Jewelz".
The smooth sounds of the previous cut leaves room for a thumping hardcore hip-hop monster similiar in tone to Side A's "Nautica". "Disclaimer" is a real headnodder where the responsible dynamic duo really show their chemistry together, as the beats and rhymes the whole time combines very natural. It's a dark but boom bap heavy jam with several layers of sound, including some type of electronic piano, a buzzing bassline and a horn that returns every other bar; of course backed up by fat drum programming.
My currently absolute favorite on the album has to be "We The People". I have previously described Apollo Brown's amazing soulful production here as 9th Woner on Steroids, consdiering it got a lot of his trademarks with strings, a grooving bassline and a beauitful and slightly high pitched vocal sample. The drums is fat as hell though and heavier than what we usually hear from 9th. This joint is truly addictive, I could probably have this strictly on repeat for an hour without losing interest. Of course OC spits some of his best verses on the entire LP here too, every line could be a quotable and the verses here display everything an emcee should have. The flow and delivery is nothing short of amazing, his clarity and definitely not least the extremely impressive lyrical display. The song speaks about where the world is going and basically that we are at a tipping point right now where things are as fucked up as ever with people only minding their own business and material possessions. "Youngin's hold heat, Grandma' scared to walk, last week she was robbed by a thief/ People dying over ferocious beef/ Respect is minimal, people hold more respect for a criminal /Oblivious, your enemy's a friend of yours/ Trust wavers, material things enslave us..." is just a few of the many jewels this song holds. To me it's the illest song I've heard this year thus far.
"Signs" is a perfect bridge between the political soulfilled cut that preceeded it and closed the A-side and the intense storytelling cut "The First 48" which kicks off the B-side. It's a somewhat slower song and clocks in at just 2:00 minutes with no hook and just one long verse, but it serves it's purpose well. It's another policial track; with O speaking on the extremely shady business responsible by the government or rather the behind the scene rulers. Another masterpiece in my book, and we're now half way through this album and to me this is perfection and even better than I'd would've hoped.
"The First 48" is back on the more hardcore tip with blasting synthesizer, thymping drums and a nasty vocal sample that Apollo uses to weave a great hook with. Credle uses this banger to tell three losely related but different stories focusing on three peeps caught up in bad situations which have them ending up in "The White Room". That means the police's interragotation room and it's the first time for each of the involved characters. At the same time it's also a story of rising and falling, giving more background on each of them . Why OC isn't mentioned more often as one of the greatest storytellers of our time is beyond me, with this skills dating all the way back to his '94 debut on classics like "Story 2 Tell", "Born 2 Live" and more.
"Angels Sing" is far from a weak link but considering the absolute amazement from every single one of the previous songs, I find it to be my least favorite so far. The production sounds a little generic to me although I'm feeling the sampled vocal hook and OC's performance is another lesson for the world. "It's like war going on between bloodsuckers and likings/ Evil vs. righteous, the double of Christ/ Unexplained occurences, unsolved murders, no answers/ Family's left to bear death's burden/ Refuges taking to house of the Lord/ Pranksters play with your mind and end up in Forbes, Knowing wealth is power/ Understand that those who hold keys to the door decides who gains entry" he convincingly spits during his second verse.
Next up is "Just Walk", another hardboiled knocker where Apollo's layer of sounds creates a superb musical platform for the emcee. Besides the synthesizer heard on most of the album in various forms, the booming drums and buzzing bassline, Brown also adds greatly executed strings and the well familiar "Walk On" vocal sample that's been used on at least two songs before (Red N Meth's "Walk On" and the Just Blaze remix of Jigga's "P.S.A."). The Phenomen takes this heavy joint to reflect on how far he's come into the game based on his skills while at the same time using the track to tell all haters to just WALK ON! There's some funny punchlines here too, iincluding - "Big in the heart though I'm 5'8, see you Scwarzenegger muschle heads don't mean a thing/ I don't scare easily, matter of fact all it takes is an ice pick to make you fold".
"The Formula" brings it back to the sound more prominent on the first half of the disc and is another one of my favorite cuts from the album. Things is slowed down a little to return to the awesome laid-back soulfulness and throughout the album these type of tracks have been the greatest. "The Formula" might be a double meaning, as it could be the formula A and O does records by, but the main point of it is OC describing the formula he's used throughout his life and musical career which has allowed him to still be here and drop quality albums like this in 2012. I always loved OC's introspective joint, too few MCs dare to do that but OC's never been your regular rapper. Over the string-driven beat OC really is in element here and I sure as hell wouldn't mind a 12" release of this, preferably with the "Prestige Of A King" joint on the B-side.
The second official single was "People's Champ" and while I think there are more suited selections for a single, it's a straight up banger, no doubt about that. A pumping beat, OC and a sampled M.O.P. vocal hook can hardly go wrong, isn't that the truth?! My only complaint is that there's a weird telephone dialing tone every now and then which I really don't feel add anything positive to the song. OC does another one of his trademarks here; classic battle raps, a classic theme on any dope old school album, but something that's sadly been disgustingly dilluted amongst pretty much all new rappers. It's not about bragging about how much guns and bitches you got, you speak on your lyrical skills and OC makes some convincing statements here (although he sure as hell don't need to haha). It's not "Time's Up" but it's a very solid cut, indeed.
Back to the more strictly soulful tracks again, and again it turns out to be a succesful take on that formula. Brown's thumping beat with, amongst other things horn and vocal samples, makes "Options" another standout track from the album. O is once again sending out a positive and important mesagge here; that life is all about what decisions you make in life and if you strive to make the right ones you're much more likely to find yourselves living a much better life than if you choose the path of negativity.
On first listen, I didn't feel "Caught Up" at all. OC's message and lyrics is on point, speaking on the increased hunt for success from young women with low self esteem; growing up to quick and showing themselves half naked or more on internet sites like WSHH. It's an important topic that O handles with care; "15 minutes of fame shot by that quick, or should I say a sec using sex baby?". As for the beat it has definitely grow on me, as it's a nod to the synthesizer heavy sound of much early hip-hop and electro. In a way it reminds me of Herbie Hancock's classic electro-funk period with the heavily sampled "Rockit" for example.
The album closes with a short outro type song aptly titled "Fantastic" which makes for a perfect closer for an LP with a wide array of different styles. "Trophies" finds both the producer and the emcee in a very reflective and introspective mood, with Apollo Brown supplying a beautiful accoustic piano following OC's only verse that the song rides out on accompanied by a sampled gospel sounding accapella that fits perfectly with O's last word on the LP. Throughout his verse, the D.I.T.C. legend speaks about his entire career from the release of "Word... Life" and "Jewelz" to "Bon Appetit" and "Starchild" + "Smoke & Mirrors". As a long time fan of the man and avid supporter of his music it's very interesting to hear in his own word how he felt about those albums and the criticism some of them met. Therefore, for this reason it's thematically one of my favorite songs on the album.
So there you go - a track-by-track review of OC & Apollo Brown's "Trophies". It's quite the long review, and it's different from how I usually write 'em but I'm so amazed by this album that I felt that every single song was worthy of a breakdown. I listened to this several times by now, waiting for May 1 when hopefully my pre-order 2xLP arrives. The first time I heard it, I thought the entire first half was nothing short of mindblowing but that it lost some steam after track #8 which only occassionally returned. With each listen I've been beginning to see and hear the immense greatness of all songs on here, although there are of course tracks that are better than others and vice versa. OC's always been one of my favorite emcees and "Word...Life" is still in my top #10 albums of all time but this might very well be his best lyrical display on a full-length disc since 1997s "Jewelz". That speaks much more about how fantastic he is on here rather than his work on previous albums as he's always been an incredibly talented wordsmith, even "Bon Appetit" grew a lot on me over the years. What it does is speak volumes on two separate things. For starters, it reveals that despite being in the game for nearly 20 years, O is still as hungry as ever. Second, it's a evidence of the type of chemistry he has found with the relatively new, at least to the masses, beat mastermind Apollo Brown. The latters production work on this is constantly standing out and supplements OC's topics and delivery. The choice to use nothing but one MC and one DJ/producer without any guest verses further cements that undeniable chemistry. Hopefuly we'll see more of this duo in a near future as this is the best album I've heard this year; right up there with last years finalists. If I'm going to give one minor complaint, it's that the use of some dope cuts and scratch hooks would've enforced the boom bap aesthetics even further. But that's a minor complaint on an album this fantasticly driven and refreshing in todays rap climate. Much props to OC, Apollo Brown and Mello Music Group for helping to keep real hip-hop alive and if you're feeling this as much as I do - shame on you if you don't support it! PRE-ORDER @ UGHH now!