Bobbito Garcia's Fondle 'Em Records [click to read] set a bar for underground Hip Hop in the late '90s. Through this New York imprint, artists like RJD2, Copywrite, Percee P, The Juggaknots and MF DOOM emerged through collectable vinyl releases, and unconventional styles that reshaped critical and listener perception of uncut Hip Hop. Among the movements was Scienz of Life, a group led by the production of DOOM, that worked with the KMD member through his King Geedorah work in 2003. After two solo projects, Lil Sci - now known as John Robinson returns to his roots for a beautiful reintroduction, with a body of work that pushes individuality with the sound longtime listeners love.
"Shrink Rap" is telling of Robinson's purpose. The song, complete with a Lucky Charms-inspired chorus, chronicles over 20 years of one man's dedication to the mic device. Although his topics get tangential at times, Robinson's words seem gravely intentional. His flow shifts speeds, a return to that bold style, however this time, between the sample-driven DOOM composition, Robinson employs a chorus, making a song, not just three strong verses. "The Replenish," a rhythmic flip of a classic Cymande sample, finds John explaining the purer essence of why he does what he does, as far as connecting communities and enriching the minds of listeners. Whereas many of today's emcees that rap about rap get lost in self-importance, Robinson and his style, are like his mentors, in their ability to appeal to folks simply seeking good delivery, independent of message. Of the 13 tracks, the only one that even slightly feels out of place is the over-produced "Expressions," turning to a bulk of singing from Tiffany Paige, a veer from the path of beats, rhymes and simple, '90s-minded choruses. Feeling like an easy fit for Robinson's previous solos, the song is strong, just a bit of a reach.
From a production standpoint, Who Is This Man? will remind many of DOOM's acclaimed work on his 1999 album Operation Doomsday. Famous for recycling work, the bulk of this breathes new light to the man who's produced for Ghostface [click to read], 3rd Bass and Vast Aire [click to read]. Heavy on sampling, minimalist drums, this Jazz and Funk-influenced body of work is as exciting as anything the elusive veteran has touched in a decade. The Visionaries' DJ Rhettmatic handles the scratching, adding a fuller, more fundamental sound to the mix. Highlights include the smooth and dusty "Sorcerers" - which DOOM also lends vocals to, the vintage New York sound on "Outta Control," and the charged chop of "The Truth." DOOM carefully slides in an old composition in "Indy 102," which a certain Shaolin emcee previously favored. Like Showbiz or Diamond D [click to read], MF DOOM's production work is often released sparingly. This work reminds us why it's always worth waiting for.
Group or solo, as Lil Sci or John Robinson, this outstanding album answers its own question. New York's underground glory days return, without sounding too intentional. Thoughtful, smoky rhymes stand out over some of the dustiest production to release since Count Bass D's Dwight Spitz or Edan's Beauty & The Beat [click to read]. Robinson and DOOM take themselves, their listeners and Hip Hop back to a different, richer time.