Terrace Martin has operated as a sort of musician’s musician within Hip Hop for the past several years. As a child of a singer/songwriter and Jazz drummer in his mother and father respectively, he admits that his first beat machine, a SP-1200 he was gifted when he was 9, preceded his first saxophone by some four years. In kind, it was also Hip Hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest that first introduced the LA producer to Jazz on his own terms. In some ways he acts as a fitting microcosm for a younger, born into Hip Hop generation’s interest in Jazz then, whether or not he—or all of us—were informally hipped to Lucky Thompson’s “Green Dolphin Street” through Tribe’s “Jazz (We’ve Got),” it’s the pursuit of the original’s enthusiasm that characterizes a Jazz fan. To be fair, plenty of Hip Hop artists continue to mine these types of records for sample fodder, but few offer up original compositions or inflections of their own in the way that Martin has and continues to.
Despite his working relationship with the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg and other left coast emcee’s like Kurupt, in the long run, Martin’s legacy as a producer will probably be more indebted to his work with TDE artist Kendrick Lamar and his recent smash good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Still, he has been clear that his opportunity to work alongside his own heroes in Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder is his greatest triumph thus far. The Quincy Jones connection may be the most revelatory when looking into Martin’s future, and, as a fan, it may also be the most comforting.
3ChordFold is surprisingly Martin’s proper debut despite a slew of shorter, original projects already under his belt. Within today’s more relaxed acceptance of the term, the record might be considered a “concept album” in its adherence to a single topic and idea all the way through. To be a little less congratulatory, 3ChordFold is a relationship album with a little added nuance. Martin’s main idea, and the source of the project’s narrative and sequencing, is that a significant other can be neatly packaged into one of three identities: a freeloader, renter or buyer. The “types” speak for themselves, but suffice to say that a buyer is implicitly the end goal (Martin seems to have left himself out of the equation, but we can guess that he’s acted as each himself at some point). To be fair, the freeloader/renter/buyer analogy ends up feeling somewhere between well-executed and overthought. The final twist and source of the album’s title is that Terrace seems pleasantly stuck between two relationships throughout.
Still, the producer’s sticking to his guns on the concept yields a nicely cohesive album. Perhaps more importantly and impressively, 3ChordFold sounds good throughout. While it is largely built out of downtempo spaciness, there is a freshness and sense of movement from beginning to end. The album opens smartly with a vibed out introduction featuring Ab-Soul. Like many of the other songs, “Ab-Soul’s Intro” is laid-back and layered. It begins with a wah-wah laced rhythm guitar and floating, echoey vocals. The drums here in particular, and this is evident on some of the producer’s other music as well, are no doubt a function of coming up under his father’s sounds: in lieu of in-your-face crispness, an approach apparent elsewhere on the record, brushstrokes of percussion yield a pattering more than a head-nod inducing pattern. The difference in execution between “Ab-Soul’s Intro” and the Kendrick Lamar follow up, “Triangleship,” is one worth charting throughout, particularly with the credits in hand. Whereas the introduction feels almost completely a product of live instrumentation, and the credits bear this truth, “Triangleship” feels more like a beat with Martin’s wandering saxophone on top. The fact that Martin’s sometimes collaborator 9th Wonder coproduced “Triangleship,” one of four tracks on 3ChordFold with his name on it, might also offer an “a-ha” moment. While in their nature songs like “Triangleship” or “Something Else” feel strictly defined, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, the live feel of “Ab-Soul’s Intro” or “No Wrong No Write” allow a more open canvas, not just for Martin or pianist Robert Glasper’s solos, but for an entire song’s progression.
In light of the music, the album’s lyricism is a slightly mixed bag. Terrace’s own rapping falls somewhere in between confident and generic in places, he begins “Get Away” with a series of disjointed and mostly verbless descriptions, it’s not a new trick, but he executes it nicely enough: “Passport / Bus pass / Plane ticket / First class / Long walks / Far runs / Bike rides / Make love / Make love / Make love.” The song also features Neka Brown as a vocalist, and while the hook is delivered to good effect, her wordless, almost humming singing that follows is far more memorable, if nothing else for being so catchy. “Over Time,” which is a showcase for veteran Philadelphia singer Musiq Soulchild as much as Martin’s own rapping and singing, is a nice blend of the producer’s harder, cleaner approach and the singer’s nontraditional phrasings. The song is also a product of a much more aggressive attack than the rest of the album and at times the general sparseness, a peripheral serving of piano and a siren sound here and there, make it seem a bit ominous. One of the album’s obvious standouts is the second single “No Wrong No Write” which epitomizes the type of Jazz both Martin and childhood friend Robert Glasper are able to inject into an otherwise Hip Hop sounding number. The song, which also features the increasingly popular James Fauntleroy II as a vocalist, lets loose another tight drum pattern and a breezy, repetitive sax riff from Martin. Glasper’s keys, in this case emanating from the classic Fender Rhodes, get a chance to come into their own for some free improvisation both in the song’s middle and ending. If any song on 3ChordFold is a manifestation of true Jazz through a Hip Hop lens it’s this one, and while Martin’s sax is often floating around throughout, it sometimes feels like a mood-setter—a sort of 2013 Smooth Jazz rendition—instead of an end to itself as it does on “No Wrong No Write.”
Later, the drums from “Happy Home” and even some of its melodic phrasings are indebted almost too closely to the introduction to Kendrick Lamar’s “The Art Of Peer Pressure.” But these sounds are worth airing out fully on their own. On this song and others, Terrace’s lyrical delivery also seems like it owes itself in part to Kendrick’s own vulnerable breathiness. While the former may not quite be mistaken for the latter, there’s no doubt that there’s a similarity to be noticed.
The features are, at best, artistically productive. At worst, the guest appearances add little but a recognizable name (Wiz Khalifa’s opening bars on “Motivation” are an easy pick for one of the project’s stalest moments). Overall, 3ChordFold is a gratifying listen, in part, and this is beholden to Jazz albums of the past, because it’s full of memorable moments. Taken as a whole it acts as a smooth mix of R&B and Hip Hop (despite the previous term’s continually being encompassed by the second) and it’s best characteristic is it’s creator’s musicality. Even when building a song that might fit on the radio, Martin’s production has a dynamism too often missing in today’s Hip Hop. In the end, it’s hard to complain too much about a lack of truly deep lyricism when there is so much else to pick through. In 2011 Martin told MTV, “The good thing about music is you can just keep on doing it.” Free of the lifestyle agenda and celebrity of his peers, Martin may be a logical pick for continued musicianship in Hip Hop. As fans, we can only hope he just keeps on doing it.