It’s taken
18 years, but B-Real [click to read] has finally gone solo…kinda.
Cypress Hill’s frontman is following groupmates DJ
Muggs [click to read] Eric Bobo
[click to read] and Sen Dog [click to read] by releasing his own project
apart from the L.A.-based foursome before Hip Hop’s first
Latino superstars reunite for their eighth full-length later this
year. Having partnered his Audio Hustlaz production company
with indie powerhouse Duck Down (as the label continues to
expand its roster beyond Boot Camp Clik members), Real
has finally delivered his long-delayed solo debut. With two standout
singles (and a couple other noteworthy selections) masking its mostly
middle-of-the-road tracks, the album is maybe appropriately titled
Smoke N Mirrors.

SNM gets
off to a thunderous start courtesy of Scoop Deville’s
bass-heavy remake of The Stylistics ’70s soul
classic “Children Of The Night” (which is inexplicably
billed as Smoke N Mirrors title-track). And while onetime Dove
vocalist Bo Roc’s crooned chorus slows down
the songs momentum somewhat, B-Real’s lament on the
struggles of living that late night street life atop Scoop’s
stellar sample flip makes for an impressive reinterpretation of the
Stylistics original.

West coast
producer-on-the-rise, and son of Latin rap forefather Kid Frost,
Scoop Deville contributes another one of the album’s
standout sonics via its lead single, “Don’t Ya Dare
Laugh,” by uniting a Dr. Dre-esque foundation of ominous
piano chords and blipping synths with a cleverly-used vocal sample
from Suzanne Vega’s 1987 pop-smash “Tom’s

But the polished
productions on SNM aren’t limited to Scoop’s
two contributions. B-Real himself jumps behind the boards
for the more traditionally experimental Cypress-style jams
“Fire” [click to listen] (the album’s second single) and “1
Life.” The former being a Reggae-driven collaboration with Nas’
new musical partner Damian Marley, wherein which the
Smoke-a-Thon participant pays homage to that sticky icky. And the
latter being a Spanish-guitar-and-trumpet blessed reunion with Sen
featuring the “Latin thugs” spitting in

However, outside
of the few aforementioned highlights, chinks in the sonic armor of
SNM become audible very quickly. Most of the album’s
remaining production ranges from listenable midtempo Westside
soundscapes courtesy of Audio Hustlaz beatsmith J. Turner
(the pinnacle of his four productions being for B-Real’s
story of a dealer and his wanna be jacker on “Dude Vs. Homie”)
to horribly generic creations like Fifth’s synth-string
laden “Get That Dough.”

Leaning towards
the tolerable but not quite standout side are the self-produced “Dr.
Hyphenstein” (which sports powerful hydraulic drums, but is
tarnished by Snoop Dogg’s painfully obvious freestyled
verse) and the Alchemist [click to red] laced “6 Minutes,” whose
menacing track seems to lose its growl as the song progresses,
suffocating Real’s detailing of how here today, gone
tomorrow rappers rise and fall.

And tipping
towards the completely uninspired side of the sound spectrum is
“Everything U Want,” wherein the sole appearance from a
member of Real’s new Duck Down familia is
squandered. Buckshot’s scolding of less grind-minded
artists is sacrificed to Soopafly’s lazily chopped
orchestral sample (Soopa’s surprisingly subpar “PSA”
inspired production on “Gangsta Music” isn’t much

With no
trackwork from DJ Muggs, SNM is ultimately missing the
Bomb Squad-meets-bong smoke-inspired psychedelia of classic
Cypress. And in an apparent attempt to separate his solo
offering from his contributions to the Hill, Real has
not only foregone working with his longtime audio provider but has
also tried to tame the more helium-sounding stretches to his
signature nasal delivery. Unfortunately this less laidback and more
mechanical sounding approach leaves Real’s staccato flow
sounding uneasy a great deal of the time (with rushed rhymes
oftentimes crammed into bars).

But B-Real
shows that he is capable of crafting a captivating verse even within
these self-imposed sound and style constraints, overpowering fellow
Audio Hustla Salaam Wreck’s cheesy bounce beat on “When
They Hate You” to engagingly explain what would’ve
happened had he not left the streets for the rap game: “When
I spit it I’m committed, it’s a blessing, I’m
grateful / Could’ve been one of the many feeling bitter and
hateful / Could’ve gave up on my dreams, steady bangin’ and
slangin’ / Servin’ fiends on the corner with the red rag

And while it
should be noted that had Scoop Deville produced more of its
tracks, and the unimpressive cameos from B-Real protégé,
and Tangled Thoughts emcee, Young De [click to read] (who appears on a
third of the album’s cuts) been left on the cutting room floor,
a much less uneven effort would have likely emerged, Smoke N
is proof that nothing can mask the fact that after nearly
two decades B-Real still has the magic touch on the mic.