It’s been 14 long years since Ultramagnetic
MC’s
last studio album, 1993’s mediocre The
Four Horseman
, so it’s safe to say that the title of their latest effort
isn’t a complete misnomer. After all, in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of Hip
Hop, where trends come and go quicker than a premature ejaculator visiting a
$20 crack whore, a decade-plus absence makes Kool Keith and company seem like the genre’s Rip Van Winkles. But for those hardcore heads whose historical
knowledge extends beyond the average ADHD-addled attention span, Ultramag‘s influential legacy is no
secret at all.

Emerging from the Boogie Down Bronx in the mid-’80s, the group (originally a
trio featuring Keith, Ced Gee and DJ Moe Love, but eventually expanded into a quartet) never quite
achieved the international acclaim of peers such as Boogie Down Productions, Public
Enemy
and EPMD. But the one-time
house party favorites are widely recognized for several Hip Hop firsts: They
were the first group to employ a sampler as an instrument, the first to feature
extensive use of live instrumentation and the first to prominently feature a
former psychiatric patient (Keith).
Known for their unique combination of funky, Jeep-thumping beats and often
obscure lyrical references, the group released one undeniable Hip Hop classic,
1988’s infinitely influential Critical
Beatdown
, and a couple of poorly received follow-ups before disbanding in
the mid-’90s to pursue various solo projects.

In truth, the group would probably remain largely forgotten were it not for
the fact that Kool Keith is one
seriously fucked-up dude, rapping about everything from twisted gynecologists
and porn-obsessed perverts to alien invasion conspiracy theories on projects
like Dr. Octagon and Mr. Nogatco. An eccentric icon on the
underground scene, it’s quite likely Keith‘s
clout that scored the group a new record deal, as it’s difficult to imagine
thousands of Ultramag fans clamoring
to hear The Best Kept Secret.

As for those that are? Well, suffice it to say that the group’s 2007 version
is slightly more likely to receive a critical beatdown than they are to match
the singular vision of their groundbreaking debut. In truth, the album almost
sounds more like Keith‘s uneven solo
work of recent years, with production that could easily be mistaken for that of
Kutmaster Kurt. “The Plaques” opens
the album on a promising note, with a simple boom-bap beat backing Keith and Ced Gee‘s sharp lyrical attacks on the current state of the game: “You cats are scared to write/I can tell by
the way you nibble/dash and doggie bite/You sweat the boo/Spit negative
truth/With all your might/Look at you scratching for rank/I’m sorry, Mr.
Strongarm/I can see the way you fight/Over hamster food/That’s not right/Now
I’m-a have to urinate in your left hand/Teach you how to be polite
.”

But too many tracks here, from “Late Nite Rumble” and “Porno Star (Part 2)”
to “Ain’t It Good To U” and “Party Started” sound more like the kind of
underdeveloped, oversexed shit Keith
could do in his sleep – which only makes tracks like “Mechanism Nice (Born
Twice),” “Nottz,” “War” and “Vibrato” – which recall the bizarre brilliance of
the band’s glory days – all the more frustrating. These tracks prove that Ultramagnetic MC’s still have greatness
in them, but the reality is that The Best
Kept Secret