Few emcees are quite capable of coherently stringing together bars about The Bible, conspiracies theories and mangling an enemy’s face with the business end of a box-cutter. But that’s pretty much Jedi Mind Tricks/Army of the Pharaohs front-man Vinnie Paz in a nutshell. The metal-mouthed Philadelphia emcee is the reigning impresario of angry independent Rap, establishing perhaps one of the most influential movements in underground Hip Hop since MF DOOM.
Now, after over a decade in the game, Louie Doggs is setting out as a ronin with his debut solo LP, Season of the Assassin. The album is an exciting break from the usual JMT formula, with Paz hitting his stride as a lyricist and showing a different and more fully-rounded side to his craft.
Opening the album with a quote from Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, the Pazmanian Devil leaves no question as to what to expect: to paraphrase Rocky III, he’s a wrecking machine and he hasn’t sounded this hungry since the acclaimed Violent By Design. Although little has changed in with respect to his gruff bar-for-bar approach, Paz sounds reinvigorated. Songs like “Warmonger” and “Righteous Kill” best capture his reinvention, finding him barking out bars like, “I’m a fuckin’ thunderstorm, you’re a light shower / You a bitch, you shoot and miss like Dwight Howard / You can’t battle the God, I’m too precise, coward / That’s like Khalil Muhammad saying he’s white power.”
Yet Paz shows his strength as an emcee on the album’s more introspective tracks. Songs like “Same Story (My Dedication)” , “Ain’t Shit Changed” and “Bad Day” find the Philly bruiser as his most empathetic and honest. Some of JMT’s songs like “Razorblade Salvation” have suggested Paz’s more sensitive side, but it’s never been as vividly realized as it is on Season. He digs deep on the album, meditating on everything from hitting the bottle a bit too hard to the passing of his late stepfather.
Of course, some of Paz’s best moments with JMT have been in collaborating with others, and it’s never been truer than on Season. It’s not that he can’t hold a track down himself, as cuts like “Beautiful Love” and “Role of Life” prove otherwise; rather, he rises to the occasion when working with others. Usual suspects like R.A. the Rugged Man, Ill Bill and protégé Demoz are present on tracks like “Nosebleed” and “Brick Wall.” However, in a departure from previous albums, Vin Laden looks outside the underground for help. The best beards in the game Freeway and Jakk Frost join Paz for some Illadelph thugging on “Pistolvania,” while the Clipse talk shop about that white on the album’s stand-out track “Street Wars” . In perhaps the most bizarre collaboration, Vinnie connects Houston’s Paul Wall on “Paul and Paz.” While Wall sounds out of place talking about whipping slab while Paz waxes eloquent about his skill with an ox, the song fares better than one would expect.
At the same time, however, Season of the Assassin could have made good use of a ruthless editor. Songs like “No Spiritual Surrender,” “Monster’s Ball” and “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb” are run-of-the-mill braggadocios that slow the album’s pace, while a bland Beanie Sigel detracts from a worthy verse from Paz on “Kill ‘Em All.” Yet perhaps the album’s weakest link is the paranoid “End of Days,” which sounds more like a leftover from Legacy of Blood. Yet clocking at 21 songs, filler is inevitable, and in Paz’s case, wholly forgivable given how the rest of the album succeeds.
Perhaps the most thrilling – and ultimately divisive – aspect of Season is the production. The album eschews Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind’s formula, giving listeners a solid glimpse for the first time at Vinny truly away from Jedi Mind. Heavyweights like Lord Finesse (“Righteous Kill” with Davel “Bo” MacKenzie), DC the MIDI Alien (“Nosebleed”), Shuko (“Beautiful Love” and “Street Wars” with Fontay) and Fizzy Womack (“Warmonger,” providing the same beat as from Blaq Poet’s “Gun Fight Gang Fight”) bring the hardest of beats. Meanwhile MoSS (“Keep Movin’ On), Da Beatminerz (“Bad Day”) and Madlib (“Aristotle’s Dilemma”) change the pace with more subdued sounds. Although a few tracks, including Sicknature’s “End of Days” and 4th Disciple’s “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb,” pale in comparison to the album’s stronger cuts, they are still well executed and fit well within the overarching tone of the album.
While Paz’s solo debut may infuriate JMT Luddites, the album is step forward for Paz as an artist. Not only has he all-but perfected his grimy braggadocio, but he also exhibits unique storytelling abilities that will make critics who dismiss him as just another hardcore rapper bite their tongues clean off.