With his latest album Back On My Rhymes, Portland emcee Serge Severe has achieved an admirable feat in delivering a collection of songs that manage to capture hip hop’s golden age without sounding stale or superfluous. If Serge ever needs an elevator pitch to sum himself up he can lift it straight from one of his track titles: “Classic But So New”.
Severe comes from a place where hip hop heads convene around a Street Fighter arcade game while the sounds of The Chronic (on cassette!) can be heard coming from every pair of headphones. Right away in the album’s opener “Here Comes The Man” Serge lets his audience know that while he may have one foot planted firmly in the vintage hip hop of his youth – he is “smooth like Slick Rick’s vocal tone” – the other is pushing forward – “like a GPS around the city I roam.”
Serge’s rhymes aren’t weighed down by abstract cosmic references or a cataloging of model names and numbers of high-tech weaponry. Rather, Severe prefers wordplay that is efficient, sharp and strikes close, essentially mirroring the machetes, shovels, box blades and chokeholds that work their way into his metaphors.
In “Prepare for Sergery” Severe states, “Button pushing DJ’s, that’s just hypocrisy.” Thankfully Universal DJ Sect along with the rest of album’s producers have accepted the challenge as Back on My Rhyme’s beats steer clear of contradicting that anti-button pushing ethos. Production-wise there is no foot dragging when it comes to turning back the clock from the age of the MP3 to the MPC and the album’s lo-fi chunky instrumentation is one of the big reasons Serge’s rhyme schemes feel organic instead of forced. Jimmy Spicer and Pete Rock records are cut up for hooks and the samples themselves help make the case that current hip hop could use a little more of the “less is more.” The upright basses are allowed to rattle, the snares aren’t quantized and the the pops haven’t been polished out of the Hammonds.
Equally integral to Back On My Rhymes success are its features. All of the LP’s guests – including standouts Luck One and Cool Nutz, who deliver a memorable rip through “No Bittin Allowed” – jibe with the album’s throwback spirit and keep the subject manner consistent.
So if some hip hop newbie ends up throwing down the gauntlet and asks for an album made this year that captures some of the same magic that excited veteran fans 20 years earlier with albums like Paul’s Boutique or Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, grabbing Serge Severe’s Back On My Rhymes off the shelf is a move that can be made with complete confidence.