Collaboration. It’s an important component of any creative endeavor and one major reason why Hip Hop has thrived even when, from time to time, Rap beefs, regional rivalries and financial greediness have threatened to turn it into nothing more than a three-ring circus. From B-boy crews grooving frantically to the emcee’s def rhymes and ill beats provided by the deejay permeating the smoke-filled air to the graf artists putting up sick pieces to the latest rap jams blasting on the radio, the synergy of various talents ensures that this particular subculture stays true to its unifying message of keeping it real (and keeping it right).

Rakaa Taylor (a/k/a Rakaa Iriscience) is no stranger to this crucial concept in Rap music. One-third of Dilated Peoples, critical darlings of L.A.’s eclectic Hip Hop scene, this emcee has many spent years building a name for his crew by working with big-name talents (i.e., Kanye West) to the relatively obscure (i.e., Jerome XL) in the quest to advance the genre’s spiritual messages of unity, love and understanding. On Crown of Thorns, his first solo venture, the Los Angeleno brings the ruckus in the form of 13 cuts that boasts a bevy of contributions from other musical talents and confirms his strong convictions towards his chosen art form, urban environment and elevated way of life.

It’s no coincidence that the album’s title hints at Rakaa’s spiritual ideologies and how he envisions the world as a battleground between positive and negative forces and it is up to us to decide what team we want to be on. Fortunately, the musical collaborators featured on Crown of Thorns are ready and willing to aid him in illuminating the hood with knowledge of self and a conscious approach to living. For example, “Human Nature” (featuring the legendary KRS-One) is a blistering track that beautifully showcases the unique approach both emcees have toward the similar topic of connecting the dots between Hip Hop, science and the mystery of life. The album’s single shows Rakaa’s intense range when we’re exposed to his solo album visions. “Delilah,” although produced by Dilated bandmate Evidence, is a booming outcry on infidelity. Told in the past tense, the deep theme is reminiscent of J-Live‘s “third” series of songs, and with the amazing vocal sampling and hard-hitting bass from Ev, is the album’s show-stealer. Rakaa Iriscience has always been about the mind, but now the heart and soul show his depth.

Another wonderful example of Taylor’s ability to synthesize his spiritual thoughts with others is on “Rosetta Stone Groove.” Wtih the help of Noelle Scaggs’ melodious vocals and DJ Rhettmatic’s artful scratches, Rakaa channels the spirited energy of his forefathers to celebrate Rap’s intrinsic connection to the African diaspora, from the Jazz-filled streets of New Orleans to the tropical shores of Cuba. Thirdly, “Ambassador Slang” (featuring Tasha, Tiger JK, Roscoe Umali, Bigryzon, Moshpit, Dumbfoundead, Tassho Pearce, Tablo, Mithra Jin, Jay Jaballas, King Kapisi and produced by DJ Honda) is a grandiose posse cut that crosses borders, languages and cultures yet manages to vehemently push forth Rakaa’s conscious goals to the forefront. In other words, it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where your spirit’s at.

If there is one bone to pick with this particular full-length is that when Taylor does take the helm without any vocal accompaniment, his message loses a bit of steam because his style can be too low-key for its own good. Take “Mezcal”, for instance. the Southern California native uses the metaphor of the sacred Mexican alcoholic beverage as an elixir of life and how spiritual concerns are imperative in building solidarity amongst the street soldiers who are truly representing the real. However, the vapid combination of the track’s laid-back ambiance and the rapper’s soft-spoken flow prevents the song from becoming a memorable experience. “Assault & Battery” is another questionable inclusion. The song appears inspired by Bomb Squad busyness in a record, with hard bass, tweeter action and call-out lyrics, but it feels out of place in an album that feeds off of substance above flare.

After releasing a few albums with his crew, Dilated Peoples, Crown of Thorns is Rakaa’s anticipated first foray into music as a solo artist. The Los Angeles-based rapper uses this as a chance to further his goal of achieving a higher state of consciousness by working alongside fellow artists who share his singular vision of a world united by righteousness, understanding and Hip Hop. In the end, Rakaa should be acknowledged for sharing his conscious messages on wax, reminding us that Rap music would be nothing today without the positive power of collaboration. One for all and all for one.