Guilty Simpson OJ Simpson

[Stones Throw; 2010]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: stoner rap, gangsta rap, comedy/spoken word
Others: Madlib, Frank ’n’ Dank, Strong Arm Steady, J Dilla

On his second official LP, OJ Simpson, Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson attempts to fight his way out of Madlib’s subconscious. It’s strange that a rap album that isn’t billed as a collaboration would have so little actual rapping on it. Literally half of this album’s 24 tracks are interludes, intermissions, intros, or outros. And while many of them feature obscure samples from old films and comedy routines that cohere around key topics — violence, drugs, and living in the ghetto — they don’t add much to the album as a product or a statement. They illustrate a mind awash with thoughts, aware of several things at once but remaining too content to contemplate, rather than getting to the business at hand. This is supposed to be Guilty Simpson’s show, after all; why isn’t it his voice that we hear?

Guilty Simpson’s first album, Ode to the Ghetto, sagged under the weight of what a hip-hop record was supposed to be; the listener had to struggle to hear Simpson’s personal voice, his blunt delivery and petulant swagger, speak out through the host of topical and stylistic obligations. It hadn’t always been so difficult to hear him excel; his guest verses are assets on J Dilla’s old tracks, and his association with Dilla was, in turn, a great asset to his career. He offers the late producer an honest tribute on “Cali Hills,” reflecting both on Dilla’s life and on his struggle to take his own music to the next level, but under the burden of such a heavy subject, his usually ebullient flow seems stilted and restrained. As given as he is to threats of violence, Simpson isn’t afraid to speak from his heart, stepping aside from shit-talking to recount the difficulties of life on the road on “Back on the Road Again” or backing away from confrontation in order to review the consequences of having unfit neighborhood role models on “Karma of a Kingpin.” Ode to the Ghetto played at being well-rounded, but Simpson is maturing as an artist, and when he shows different sides of his personality on this newer release, it doesn’t feel as forced.

But he’s at his best here when he’s unhinged on one of Madlib’s gritty, menacing beats. On songs like “100 Styles,” “Coroner’s Music,” and especially “Hood Sentence,” he provides concise verses full of punchlines (“I go at you street, with aggression/ The same way I go at a beat and wreck sessions/ Then shoot a load on your freak in Best Western”) and inventive hooks full of internal rhyme (“I put ’em in they best clothes/ Family members crying front row with a fresh rose/ Playing with my escrow will put you on death row”). “Outside,” a song about getting into fights that features Southern California hip-hop crew Strong Arm Steady, melds Madlib’s surreal sense of dread with these MCs’ insatiable hunger for bloody confrontation. But this is one of the only moments when strength and ease make themselves equally apparent on both sides of the board. “Outside” is flanked by superfluous interludes. Any time one of Simpson’s verses ends, it might be three or four minutes before you hear him again.

His growing strength and charisma as an MC notwithstanding, OJ Simpson sketches the portrait of a rapper who still hasn’t overcome the obstacles that stand between him and artistic self-definition, whether the obstacles are whack MCs, the relentless pressures of a cold world, or an hour’s worth of Madlib’s shape-shifting stream-of-consciousness stoner-rap beats.

Links: Guilty Simpson - Stones Throw

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