They must have forgotten to write Madlib’s name on the cover. The MCs in Strong Arm Steady make up for it by constantly reminding the listener that the album isn’t just an SAS album with a single producer; it’s a collaboration. Phil The Agony works the idea into “Ambassadors,” repeating, “This is a Madlib Strong Arm Steady connect” during each chorus, as if the album’s vitality depended on it. It doesn’t, but as far as Madlib collaborations go, this one is pretty modest. Not in quality of production — the SAS crew handpicked these beats from a crop of nearly 200 — but in purpose and cohesion. In place of concepts and fictional meta-narratives, In Search of Stoney Jackson just gives us a dozen different rappers letting loose over a great set of beats.
Strong Arm Steady is a loose collective that’s been slinging mixtapes in SoCal for several years now. They’ve got one proper album under their belts so far, but business has not always been good for them; they used to boast eight members, but they’ve slimmed down to two or three. This is more of a symbolic loss than a diminution of strength; no one is really left alone here. A few ex-members show up repeatedly on this album — most notably, Planet Asia — along with other distinguished visitors, including out-of-towners like Talib Kweli and Phonte. As it turns out, the guests are as much of a blessing as the fat sack full of Madlib beats. Phil The Agony and Krondon, the only two rappers on this album who aren’t credited as guests, sound noticeably worse than everyone else. “Needle in the Haystack,” whose only two verses are from Roscoe and Guilty Simpson, is easily one of Stoney Jackson’s best songs. There’s no chorus, and it’s only two minutes long, but it rolls by with such focused energy — both from the bubbling echoes in the beat’s background to Simpson’s nimble, violent shit-talking — that, at least for a while, you wish it were their album instead.
Phil The Agony’s delivery is more engaging than the measured style of his partner Krondon, but a lot of the time, he doesn’t really say anything. He hits punchlines seemingly by accident, then wanders away from them, changing rhythmic patterns and rhyme schemes arbitrarily, as if he doesn’t know where he’s going or what the songs are supposed to be about. You realize he’s not really steering the boat sometime after his opening verse on the album’s first song, “Best of Times,” during which he alleges that “life is a puzzle” immediately before switching topics several times within a few lines. A couple minutes later, Phonte steals the show with some of the most coherent and well-written lines in sight. It doesn’t hurt that he’s flowing over the kind of rock-steady and nostalgic soul track that 9th Wonder has been trying to make for years, but it’s a shame for an album to peak so early.
I’m not saying Phil sounds bad; he holds his own on the posse cut “True Champs” (“Mad steady like a nigga Jewish and I’m up in Munich”). But more often than not, ex-SAS members Planet Asia and Chace Infinite manage to outbox their former colleagues. Krondon makes a lot of unlikely metaphors on “Ambassadors,” but he is unable to approach Chace’s effortless depth of awareness (“They say stay steady, Chace, your time will come/ But I been ahead of my time since ’91”). And all that without saying anything about Talib Kweli, who visits “Get Started” the same way a tornado visits an Oklahoma trailer park. It’s like famous touring jazz musicians stopping in on a neighborhood jam session; the veteran local guys handle themselves well enough, but there’s a reason they’ve been local guys for so many years.
These songs are alive, but there are too many cooks, and they clutter things with all their different ideas and approaches. Madlib’s instrumental interludes are weird and compelling, which is no surprise, but because of the multitude of voices, his influence is more subdued than usual. Stoney Jackson’s contributors all bring a lot of experience and passion to the table, avoiding the underground rookie mistakes of sounding overly bitter or petulant. There’s no griping about mainstream trends or the difficulties of the music industry. Why complain over beats like this? It seems like everyone is happy to be here, regardless of any difficulties or poor decisions that lie in the past. But a good attitude does not a good album make. Like improvisations at a jam session, a lot of the SAS verses feel like barely-edited freestyles. Much of the lyrical content on “Chittlins & Pepsi,” a good-natured ode to health food and vegan women, consists of rambling lists (“Brussel’s sprouts broccoli and string beans/ You get your choice of three greens, plus a starch to go with it…”) and sentence structures that rarely cohere. It can be annoying, but it’s not a dealbreaker. When he’s making sense, Phil The Agony’s topical explorations are quirky and charming, such as on “Smile,” a celebration of oral health; and even when he’s not, like on the obligatory stoner anthem “Cheeba Cheeba,” you want to stick around for the ride anyway.