Few producers have proven so influential on
their respective genre as Dan “The
Automator” Nakamura
has on the underground Hip Hop scene. As the
co-creator of concept projects ranging from Dr. Octagon (with Kool Keith)
to Handsome Boy Modeling School
(with Prince Paul) and the
mastermind of the genre-bending Lovage (which
paired him with alt-rock icons such as Faith
No More’s
Mike Patton), the Bay
Area turntablist has shown an ability to make good artists sound great, and to
make great artists sound even better. So in some ways it makes sense that video
game developer 2K would hire Nakamura to produce the soundtrack to
their latest hoops title.

Of course, making sense and making dollars are two very different things, and Nakamura’s previous projects weren’t
exactly known for their commercial sales figures. Perhaps that explains why
he’s paired, seemingly incongruously, with several street-friendly emcees here,
including Slim Thug (on the weak “I
Love This Game,” which is the lyrical equivalent of the Washington Generals trying to hold down the Heat), Fabolous (on
“Ball Til You Fall,” which finds him slam-dunking the verses only to throw
bricks on the half-assed chorus) and E-40
(who proves an unstoppable lumbering giant like Shaq on “Baller Blockin’,” with San Quinn). Nakamura
uses samples of sneaker squeaks, feet pounding on hardwood floors and shot
clock buzzers to drive the musical theme home and, if not exactly inventive,
the tracks at least tend to enhance their respective emcee’s styles.

But The Automator fares far better
when paired with icons from the backpacker scene with which he is most closely
associated. The nimble linguistic skills displayed by the Hieroglyphics clique on “Don’t Hate the Player” are the lyrical
equivalent of a Harlem Globetrotters
show, full of “how’d-he-do-that?!” flash that makes it a welcome return for
fans of Bay Area Hip Hop, while Aceyalone
and Rakaa of Dilated Peoples make for a fine 2-on-2 combo with the aptly-titled
“Champions.” Lupe Fiasco and Evidence of Dilated Peoples prove equally formidable lyrical opponents on
“Catch Me,” while Mos Def continues
to prove a perennial human highlight reel with the infectious “Here Comes the

From Rhymefest (the slammin’ “Bang
the Ball”) and Chali 2Na of Jurassic 5 (the fairly pedestrian
“Anchor Man”) to A Tribe Called Quest
(“Lyrics to Go Remix”), the album has some of the biggest names in commercial
and alternative Hip Hop behind it – which  makes it all the more disappointing that this
All-Star effort seems so lackluster, as if many of the players involved were
simply there to collect a paycheck. Still, the ridiculously obvious lyrical and
musical metaphors won’t likely matter much when the music is serving its
primary purpose–playing in the background as you school your opponents on the
virtual court.