As much as we praise the virtues instituted in Hip Hop’s golden era, there is increasing proof that East Coast, sample-based music filled with complex rhymes and similes is being relegated to a subgenre. Samples are becoming too expensive to clear. Major media outlets are rewarding artists for simplifying their sound while catering to the lowest common denominator. And, perhaps most troubling, artists that thrived in the ’90s spend more time complaining about all the above instead of ushering in the kind of sonic and technical innovations that once made them so dominant. This is the climate 7L, Esoteric and Wu-Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck step into for the release of their CZARFACE project.
For an album that pays homage to pop culture references and an ethos from nearly two decades ago, CZARFACE is refreshingly progressive. Make no mistake; this is very much insular, headphone music. Esoteric and Deck treat rapping as an art form, as each verse plays out like verbal calisthenics. And 7L may very well be the MVP of the trio, with production that makes everyone involved bring their best bars. Ghostface Killah shuts down “Savagely Attack” with threats to “attack like a nigga on bath salts” and “leave ‘em broom-sticked in the asshole.” But you can more or less say the same for any of the 14 tracks on the album; because 7L flawlessly weaves together clips from Uptown Saturday Night (“Cement 3’s”) old WWF matches (“It’s Raw”) and anywhere else he pleases to compliment the abundance of obscure pop culture references from Esoteric and Inspectah Deck.
Punchline Rap may have very well died at the turn of the millennium. And we can only hope the lazy Hashtag Rap that replaced it suffers a similar fate. Rebel INS and Eso deftly avoid either trap, sticking to their comfort zone of references including Spiderman, Star Wars, Snooki of “Jersey Shore” fame and the middling TBS sitcom “Cougar Town.” Deck appeared to lose steam on 2010’s Manifesto, but his work on CZARFACE should have Wu stans salivating at the thought of his upcoming Rebellion and a 20th anniversary Wu-Tang Clan reunion album. When backed by the proper production, he has no peers when it comes to the opening verse of a rhyme. Esoteric will similarly put in a bid for one of the most underrated emcees with lines like “sacrilegious like a Tebow tackle” on “It’s Raw.”
While he steps away from the boards to make room for DJ Premier on “Let It Off,” 7L does a masterful job of crafting tracks that allow the emcees on the album to find their comfort zone without becoming repetitive. The production is dark and aggressive while still keeping the BPMs at an exciting rate.
Overall, CZARFACE has no major flaws. It’s obviously not for everyone, yet even when incorporating current critical favorites like Action Bronson and Mr. MFN eXquire, no compromises are made. Inspectah Deck, 7L & Esoteric use ’90s East Coast Hip Hop as a blueprint to innovate, and ultimately, that’s what made that era so special in the first place.