After collaborative cult gems with GZA (Grandmasters), Sick Jacken (Legend of the Mask and the Assassin) and Planet Asia (Pain Language), DJ Muggs has somehow managed to raise the bar in his Vs. series with Kill Devil Hills, the latest installment that matches up the Cypress Hill producer with Brooklyn emcee and Non-Phixion front-man Ill Bill.

The thing that’s most striking after the first listen is how natural the album feels. The earlier trifecta of Vs. albums weren’t lacking much, but they really did feel like versus albums; a top notch emcee and producer dropping their signature styles into the pot and  harnessing the collision. That formula makes one kind of appeal, whereas Kill Devil Hills feels a bit closer to the first round of Wu-Tang Clan solo albums, not so much in a musical sense but rather by how comfortable it comes across. Kill Devil Hills is an album that sounds like it was recorded by artists who have a few years as an actual duo under their belts. Listening to the first track “Cult Assassin,” one can’t help but reminisce how right it all sounded when B-Real’s (also appearing on KDH) voice flowed over Muggs production for the first time on “Pigs.”

Kill Devil Hills musically and lyrically is like the soundtrack to the greatest movie never filmed; a movie starring Fred Williamson, directed by Dario Argento, co-written by David Icke and Nicholas Pileggi, set in the Vietnam of Apocalypse Now.

The album itself doesn’t fall prey to some of the pitfalls currently plaguing many of today’s Hip Hop releases. It’s not too long and the guest appearances have been chosen and sequenced perfectly. The supporting cast of emcees only raises the quality of the record rather than eclipses it. Take “Trouble Shooters” , one of the album’s stand out tracks featuring Sick Jacken, Sean Price and a viscously on-point O.C. Next add Raekwon, who appears on another highlight, “Chase Manhattan.” Now the listener literally has performances from members of the greatest crews in Hip Hop history. (D.I.T.C., Bootcamp Clik, Wu-Tang Clan and Soul Assassins / Sick Side Army). Additionally, these guest shots aren’t about nostalgia as each veteran sounds just as hungry as the artists on Kill Devil Hills who emerged in the last decade. (Vinnie Paz, Chace Infinite, Slaine)

Ill Bill is an emcee that has the rare ability to consistently relay vivid imagery and nuanced story lines from two vantage points. Much of the swaggering and tough-guy bravado of today’s emcees fail to hide the paper gangster while the lyricists who spit big words, lofty concepts and brainy wordplay are later revealed to be incapable of carrying on a real conversation about subject matter featured in their rhymes. Since the days of “black helicopters in the sky,” Ill Bill has balanced the dystopian paranoia with a nuts and bolts street level sensibility. It has never been more evident than on Kill Devil Hills that this is an artist who feels equally at home surveying his world from a corner in Canarsie or tracking the comings and goings of the Bildeburg Group from a thermal camera in space.  As he says himself on “Illuminati 666,” “Church Ave. to the Taj Mahal We Rock hard.”

What’s refreshing about DJ Muggs production is that it always rocks, in other words it always sounds human. Today is the age of the quantize button and recording an album with the artists thousands of miles apart via MP3s. All of Muggs’ work injects the tangible back into the music. Like a band, he’s in the same studio with his collaborators laying down tracks and making creative decisions by talking from across the room rather than through e-mail. The sounds and instrumentation call to mind real musicians rather than sounds from the Fruity Loops library. Listening to the organs one hears Ray Manzarek, the drums, Ginger Baker, the sitar, a dusted out Ravi Shankar. Even Muggs’ synths have that off kilter, sonically-corrupted vibe that can only be achieved by manual input on an old Amiga. It’s perfect that Muggs’ darkest work appears on Kill Devil Hills with an emcee who regularly references metal icons including Slayer, Black Sabbath, Danny Lilker and Chuck Schuldiner.

On The Future is Now?, Bill’s Uncle Howie – who recently passed away and was iconic in his own right – helped kick things off with the track “Drug Music.” Nearly a decade later it’s poignant that Uncle Howie’s voice closes out Kill Devil Hills on the track “Narco Corridos,” this time addressing the tragic flip side of the same coin. It’s a good thing that thousands of us will get to hear this memorial to Uncle Howie again and again because Kill Devil Hills is an album that once started can only be finished the right way – straight through to the end.