Often, nostalgic-minded emcees and rap fans live frustrated musical lives. Many musicians from the “golden era” can’t recapture the talent that made them successful, while some new emcees try so hard to harken back to the “good ol’ days” that they lose their own identities in the process. These are the few choices that fans of that era are stuck with, so they often find themselves either stuck only listening to the older records that moved them, or unhappily giving in to the new crop of artists that they halfheartedly enjoy. Thankfully, The Left—the trio of fledgling production workhorse Apollo Brown, emcee Journalist103, and DJ Soko—brings back the old school essence without succumbing to any of these downfalls.
While most of Detroit’s new indie Rap dominance comes from a crop of solo emcees and producers, The Left changes it up by taking it back to a potent three-man weave of duties: Brown handles beats on what’s his third new project of the year, Journalist103 does his thing on the mic, and Soko handles the ones and twos. Journalist103 does a notable job of not letting Brown’s robust instrumentals drown him out, and Apollo equally succeeds by supplying his mic controller with a set of sound beds that match his intensity. The rhymes on Gas Mask are largely about Detroit’s grit and the uncompromising grime that roots Hip Hop, so the beats are foreboding and brawny, while maintaining a soulful quality—because that’s exactly what it takes to survive in the city and in a changing rap game, without losing yourself in the process. The pounding drums and swinging vocal splices of “Chokehold” perfectly compliment the hard-nosed rhymes, and the moody backdrop of “The Funeral” reflects Journalist103’s resentful death wishes for inferior emcees. Many will buzz about the all-star lineup of Michigan emcees who make guest appearances here—Paradime, Invincible, Guilty Simpson, Finale and others—but there’s even more to be said about how The Left is self-sufficient as a group for the bulk of the album.
The oft-used approach of dissing Hip Hop’s current state usually makes for stale results, but The Left shows and proves. Album opener “Gas Mask” succeeds conceptually by pairing Journalist103’s disgruntled rhymes with a hard-bodied Apollo beat that samples vocals singing “I can’t take it.” From that point, the group proceeds to make the Hip Hop that they, and many nostalgic Rap heads, think is missing. “Real Detroit” and “Reporting Live” see Journalist103 teaming with MarvWon and Guilty Simpson to wax poetic about the highs and lows of their hometown, and the tensely-produced “Desperation” chronicles J103 struggles to choose music over the illegal means that make the city go ’round. Meanwhile, J103 and Invincible use “Statistics” to lament about the mathematical unlikelihood of living legitimately in the inner-city, and “Homage” shows a personal side as J103 remembers loved ones that have impacted his life.
Some listeners may think that Gas Mask should have more versatility; because once The Left find their groove, they rarely change it up just for the sake of adding a foreign element to their formula. But to others, this will only add to the continuity and cohesiveness of the album. But there aren’t any lackluster songs, and even though the lyrics and the rhymes are digestible on the first listen, they get better with more listens. Ironically, by recapturing an essence of the past, The Left cement their place in playlists and disc changers of the future.