The criticisms leveled at Pro Era over the past two or so years can be reduced to a general lack of differentiation. The collective excels as Golden Age purists, yet often struggles to draw the line between revivalism and emulation; each emcee holds his own from a technical standpoint, but doesn’t aesthetically or tonally separate much from either crew chief Joey Bada$$ or the late Capital STEEZ. As a result, Pro Era’s three group releases—2012’s PEEP: The Aprocalypse and the two-part Secc$ T.ape series—can be commended for consistency or knocked for monotony, depending on where in New York you stay and your level of appreciation for Lord Finesse beats.
Pro Era promptly switches up the formula on the aptly titled The Shift, a five-track EP released through a partnership with Scion AV. The DOOM apery is shed in favor of beats that sound nothing like the other, from the frantic twanging of “Come Come” to the loose reverbs of “On My Life.” And though verses tend to blend after a few rotations, the EP finds some of Pro Era’s lower ranks experimenting with more distinguishable flows, be it Kirk Knight’s choppy cadences or the double-times of Dirty Sanchez. The Shift is the result of Brooklyn crate diggers turning on Hot 97, and the triumphs aren’t without a few growing pains.
The Shift opens with “Extortion,” which features two-fisted raps from Knight and Dyemond Lewis. Despite its blunt hook (“Who want war? They don’t want that war!”), both 16s lack a discernible direction, with Knight making references to apostles and surrealism and Lewis rapping about “vodka blocking my chakras” before the second verse closes with a pithy, “Don’t get murked / Step through the door, you know feelings get hurt.” Similarly, Sanchez spits a dizzying verse on the bouncy “Come Come,” but combines the collective’s “fuck the government” dictum before finishing with, “We’re running the game and this shit is exhausting / But I don’t give a fuck, ‘cause this shit is awesome.”
It is significant to note the hyper-locality of The Shift despite its blatant effort to expand stylistically. A La $ole says that listening to Long Beach Rap is treason on “Hail Razor,” a minute before Dessy Hinds name-drops RZA, GZA and Jigga while syllable-cramming; the song ends with cyphered shouts about “reppin’ New York like my name was Walt Frazier.” Like the stars two decades before them, Pro Era doesn’t invest much in hooks.
The Pro Era collective consists of more than a dozen rappers, and touts 47 total members, yet its most celebrated representative only appears on two tracks. After spending a year using a coarser flow, “On My Life” finds Joey Bada$$ reverting to the mellowness of 1999, though the woozy beat unfittingly switches to skittering uptempo as his verse starts. It’s still some of the project’s best bars, and though his audience widens, Joey swears that his “soul ain’t got a price.”
Despite the inconsistencies of its first four tracks, The Shift is redeemed by the finale “Butterflies,” a lengthy posse cut similar to Aprocalypse’s “Last Cypher” and Joey’s “Suspect.” Produced by Powers Pleasant, the song’s wallowing backdrop inspires some of the crew’s most earnest raps to date. “The sky ain’t the same no more / Clouds are identical, the poison chemicals trails / Keep your eyes open, kid eat your vegetables,” an urgent Sanchez starts. “Butterflies” is 11 minutes of sharp, youthful introspection, rounded out with Bada$$’s tribute to STEEZ.
Ultimately, The Shift is exactly what a free EP should be: calculated risks and experiments meant to gauge a new direction. “Stay progressive is the ancient proverb,” Joey raps on the tape’s final verse. It seems Pro Era is finally willing to listen to that, and though any shift brings unsettled change, what comes next could be considerably better.