Creating a noteworthy producer-centric Hip Hop album is never an easy task: even the most talented and well-intentioned of beat makers/musicians have failed to fit the bill in making a solid body of work that is listenable from start to finish. A producer has to find and keep that fine balance between ensuring their music stands strong and is powerful enough to be recognized by the most fickle of Hip Hop fans and critics, while also making sure not to overpower the emcees featured over their beats or having their music outshined by said emcees rhymes. And when your album is filled with some of the most respected lyricists in the industry like Action Bronson, Guilty Simpson, Jon Connor, Joe Budden, Skyzoo and more, the task can become that much more daunting.
But Chicago producer A-Villa is clearly unphased by these potential pitfalls on his debut solo album, Carry On Tradition. Having taught himself how to produce and being armed with a slew of classic samples, pounding, raw drums and intricate, carefully chosen loops and instruments, Villa’s first solo joint is highly listenable and time-honored without being stale or watered-down.
Boom Bap-heavy and filled to capacity with both hard-hitting soul samples and some of the most talented emcees in Hip Hop today from the very first track, Carry On Tradition isn’t merely an album that pines for the old school. “Raw Wraps” has to be one of the most obvious standout tracks. Containing a haunting, creeping piano loop, eerie string arrangements and menacing lyricism from Chance The Rapper, Martin Sky, Michael Christmas and MC Tree G, the song adds a dose of clever darkness and weed rap to an album dominated by traditional East Coast Hip Hop. And the Roc Marciano-featured “A Hustler’s Soliloquy” is possibly the watershed moment in the albums’ production and beats: deep and touching, horn-heavy and warmly complimented by Roc Marci’s lyricism.
Adding to Carry On Tradition’s mystique are interludes within songs featuring snippets of hood classic films and television like Belly, Paid In Full and The Wire, samples some of the most legendary living and posthumous emcees like Nas, Jay Z, Big Pun and Big L, as well as the instrumentals found at a similar level. Clearly a nod to the cinematic leanings of 90s East Coast Hip Hop albums, A-Villa nonetheless manages to make these interludes sound far from used and recycled as each one flows effortlessly into the next track. This also isn’t an easy thing to do, seeing as these interludes made for lots of overkill after a while. But Villa’s talent for choosing the right musical moment is evident as his production never stalls or gets stagnant on tracks like “The Colosseum” and “Mega Trifle.”
Without question, A-Villa takes the idea of carrying on the torch and breathing new life into Hip Hop production extremely seriously. His craft is one that is deep-seated in the tradition of the Bomb Squad, parsing together different elements, snippets, cuts and scratches of music to make a stomping, forceful whole. His production throughout Carry On Tradition is heavily influenced by the styles of legends like Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Large Professor, but refuses to stay boxed squarely into a boom-bap corner, as evidenced by the way emcees from a wide array of regions beyond New York (Killer Mike, Chance The Rapper, Freddie Gibbs, Jon Connor, Rapsody, Elzhi, Big K.R.I.T. and Ras Kass) can effortlessly ride his beats.
The only true slippage comes in an unexpected drawback: many of the emcees on the album don’t always bring their A-game lyrically. Combined with a waning momentum towards the end on tracks like “Sucker Free” and “A Day In The Life,” A-Villa’s debut leaves at least a little more to be desired. But in the end, Carry On Tradition is a heroic album from a producer that has created his own way and created a project worthy of praise from both fans and fellow producers alike.