Throughout his career, Juju Mob/Army of The Pharaohs emcee Reef the Lost Cauze has had no trouble distinguishing himself as a vicious wordsmith with Jake LaMotta’s ruthlessness and early Mike Tyson’s hunger. Now, for his on his third solo LP Fight Music, the Philadelphia native steps back into the ring, this time with production trio Guns-N-Butter in his corner. Like much of solo discography, Fight Music finds Reef reclaiming old mastery, but not without a few snags along the way.
Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Reef’s artistry is his hunger. He attacks the mic with pit bull-abandon, making for an exciting listen even when he’s not at the top of his game. On the opening intro, Reef growls at the mic, “I had priors before Richard, bills before Cosby / It’s not comedy, I’m starving.” He unloads an assault of street politics and threats that puts him in the same class as Torae and Ruste Juxx. But Reef slows things down on songs like the emotional “Sun” and wholly honest “Lazy Sunday,” allowing the more personal content to properly shine. It’s in these moments that it becomes clear Reef isn’t just the barbaric brawler of an emcee that his gruff delivery would suggest.
Despite Reef’s more subdued inklings, Fight Music finds the Philly emcee knuckled up and ready to brawl. He keeps it brilliantly gully on songs like “Cut U Up,” “OPG Theme” with Vinnie Paz and Burke the Jurke and “Suicide Slang” with Slaine and the scene-stealing King Magnetic, and even stays in step rhyming alongside tried-and-true vets Kool G Rap and R.A. The Rugged Man on “Three Greats” .
Although Reef is a Picasso when it comes to thugged-out shit-talk, he has a real talent for vividly illustrating the hood. On “Get Me Out of Here,” he spits, “Cops arrest you without no evidence / Only way we getting rich is out of court settlements / Can’t move out your mama’s house, you in the basement / Can’t afford to live in the hood – gentrification.” Yet it’s on the album’s stand-out track “What We Rep” with Big Noyd that Reef melds his detailed observations with his with his more hard-body tendencies, perfectly exemplifying his capabilities as an emcee to spit great punch-lines but also adhere to a concept.
Yet Fight Music takes some on the chin in its own right. The album’s middle section slugs along at snail’s pace due to a series of mediocre songs. By no means are they even that bad; rather, they simply don’t elicit the same level of brilliance achieved by Reef on the rest of the album. “I’m a G” is a fairly bland string of gangsta braggadocios, while subpar guests bring down the quality of “Trigger Talk” and “Bosses” (not including Akir, whose rapid-fire verse on the latter of the two tracks is simply fantastic).
Maintaining Fight Music’s cohesive sound are Stu Bangas, J Scrilla and Chop La Rok, collectively called Guns-N-Butter. Their production seems to keep Reef focused, allowing the album to effortlessly flow even at its low points. The best of the groups beats are undoubtedly J Scrilla’s “What We Rep” and “Suicide Slang,” Stu Bangas’ “OPG Theme” and “Three Greats, and the Chop La Rok/J Scrilla collab “Sun.” Although a few beats prove to be little more than middling fare, namely “I’m a G” and “Trigger Talk,” the album is sonically hardcore with a perfect blend of samples and synth instrumentation.
Fight Music is a knuckle bruiser of an album. Reef and company form like a Foreman Grill, cutting out the excess fat and cooking up 13 lean tracks, but at the same time, the album suffers from misguided content and pacing issues. Reef has earned the TKO, but not without having taken a few punches in the process.