Since 2008, Mello Music Group has carved out a niche for themselves, fostering the successes of both homegrown artists and free agent signees alike. Over the years, the label has intelligently mixed-and-matched emcees and producers accordingly, in order to achieve the best possible sounds. Trophies by O.C. & Apollo Brown won HipHopDX’s “Slept-On Album of the Year” in 2012, for its combination of veteran lyricism and classically trained production. Whether old-school or new-school, MMG’s musical vibe has always been constant.
Persona is MMG’s label compilation for 2015. Annual releases are their way of showcasing their vast array of collective talent. Guys like Oddisee and Rapper Big Pooh have already established rapport in the Rap game. Others like Red Pill and Open Mike Eagle, are the young guns currently on the uptrend. MMG founder and mastermind Michael Tolle has spoken at length about filling the void left by Rawkus Records and their renowned Soundbombing series, and he’s done an admirable job. In a world where thriving Indie labels are few and far between, Mello Music Group has been making legitimate noise since 2007.
Lyrically, the focus of Persona is on current events and which MMG emcee has the best bars. It isn’t exactly a competition, just a field day for underground heads. The roster is full of talent, but the guests brought in (from Phonte, to Masta Ace, to Kool Keith) to contribute are equally great. Right out of the gate on “Requiem,” Oddisee and Phonte aim for the heartstrings, invoking the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” chant, and the shooting of Michael Brown. Oddisee tears down the negativity and stereotypes while rapping: “I’m here to drive your taxis, feed your families and your fears / And kick a little knowledge in yo ear / If you ask me / So please go head get at me if my words loud as your actions / So we can get together and do something that’s impacting.” Without specific mention of contemporary racist policing tactics, the message of the song resonates powerfully. Similarly, the heavily political “PNT” by Apollo Brown & Ras Kass follows suit with their 2014 collaborative LP, Blasphemy.
As previously mentioned, the Mello Music Group emcees shine, but so do the guests. On “Circles Around Circles,” Gift of Gab of Blackalicious leaves nothing to be desired, acrobatically rhyming over a gritty, sample-based beat from L’Orange: “Peep the metamorphosis from the secret clever forces / They will be forever lost in sonic deep endeavors often / Hear to lead the way of rhyme to each and every lost one / When I see a rapper’s head I seek to sever off one.” Each emcee on Persona — both MMG and otherwise — brings their own talents into the mix, but stylistically they all fit under the same umbrella, which makes for an ever-refreshing listen from beginning to end.
Production is rooted in the classical trends. Oddisee, Apollo Brown, L’Orange, and Oh No each supply two beats, while Quelle Chris, Nottz, Exile, Blockhead, and up-and-comers Tall Black Guy and I, Ced make individual contributions of their own. The general forte is the MPC, but every producer dug especially deep in the crates for Persona. “Lose The Ground” by Tall Black Guy and yU is loaded with musical nuances and smooth percussion, while the album closer, Quelle Chris’ “All I See Is You” is a haunting mix of downtempo vocal and acoustic guitar samples.
Persona is an excellent collaborative effort from the artists of Mello Music Group. The album plays a bit long with 16 tracks, but the music is never repetitive, nor trite. Founded upon the blood and sweat of like-minded artists working together, Persona practices what it preaches: unity, progress, and sheer talent, articulated through music.