Visions of powder blue, a hollerin’ Petey Pablo and J. Cole’s Forest Hills Drive dreams occupy the average person’s headspace when they think of North Carolina Hip Hop. But the state has lowkey birthed some of Hip Hop’s finest acts of the last decade.
Influenced by Phonte and his Little Brother crew, a collective of passionate Hip Hop heads at NC State unified and branded themselves as Kooley High back in 2008. Built with the inner machinations of an old school group, Tab-One and Charlie Smarts handle mic duty while Sinopsis, Foolery and DJ Digitz work from behind the boards and Rapsody has since left to flourish on the solo circuit.
Linking up with the legendary 9th Wonder, Never Come Down is clearly an album meant to build on their platform while simultaneously expanding their reach. Normally a producer as exquisite at his craft as 9th Wonder would overtake the spotlight, but the instrumentals provide a breezy backdrop without engulfing the actual rhymesayers. And in a modern Hip Hop climate that is so often littered with repetitive and tired tropes, the project isn’t devoid of important content. “We Don’t” commences things with an airy vibe, as Tab-One and Charlie Smarts trade rhymes while allowing the soulful samples to function within all the blank spaces. It’s evident that all players involved are avid students of the genre, and “Voila” has a nostalgic Slum Village aura. Although love songs are not usually the group’s forte, they still manage to muster up a laidback, convincing tune.
The title track is a prime representation of what makes the band unique. Although 9th Wonder is the resident maestro, the in-house production contributions of Foolery and Sinopsis concoct a jazzy, synth-laden beat. Charlie Smarts and Tab-One have clearly evolved as wordsmiths over the years, but they very concretely work not to overwhelm the track with pointless observations. Everything is clear and succinct, yet they still manage to impress with their meticulous delivery. On “More Than Money” they have fun with a silky instrumental, crooning and spitting witty lyrics that display their full vocal range.
“Grinning” however is perhaps the song devoted fans have been wishing for, reuniting the group with Rapsody after five long years. Each bar ejected seems to drip with energy and intent and the level of competition is fierce. In the past, Kooley High has struggled to interweave introspective lyrics in an engaging fashion, but here they are in rare form, making the whole process seem organic.
Yet and still, sometimes Charlie Smarts and Tab-One invest so much in their penetrating delivery that they neglect other aspects of song structure. Carlitta Durand takes hook duty on “Shambles” but her presence is utterly forgettable — almost as if the chorus was a rushed afterthought. The same can be said for “Either Way,” where an unimaginative, ho-hum chorus drags on much too long, making for a noticeable distraction.
Never Come Down’s intended audience is clear, as most of its content revolves around positivity with a chemistry developed throughout the years. And its lack of unanimous classic records may ultimately lead it to be slept-on by those clamoring for that “real” Hip Hop. But with “Action” they ride a mellow instrumental to urge their listeners to get up, get out, and get something.
Hopefully, Kooley High will do the same and continue to provide a haven for righteous North Carolina beats and rhymes.