Much like a dreadlocked Busta Rhymes during his Leaders of the New School days, Elzhi‘s work as one half of Slum Village, and his various memorable guest appearances make you wonder what he could do with a whole album to himself. The answer comes in the form of The Preface, a solo offering which combines El‘s nimble, yet aggressive flow with tracks provided by fellow Detroit native, Black Milk. Since Black serves as one half of the production duo B.R. Gunna, the production team who supplied a majority of the beats for the last three Slum albums, it’s natural that he and Elzhi have a familiar chemistry.
The biggest surprise on The Preface is that both Elzhi and Black Milk don’t depend on formulas which they have successfully used in the past. The trademark snares are still here, but Black Milk doesn’t overuse his sped up “chipmunk soul” samples, instead opting for sparse, bass heavy beats which allow Elzhi and his invited guests to do what they do best. Following suit, El tones down his often complex flow and uses cuts such as “The Science” to showcase a dark side of his personality that is only seldom seen during his usual collaborations with T3 (“I’m living fast/But cash is moving slow in motion/I’m going through ups and downs like I’m roller coaster ridin’/Hidin’ feelings behind a wide grin/I almost died inside when I couldn’t provide ends”). The rare moment of sensitivity is found on “Transitional Joint,” where Elzhi retraces that exact moment when the ideal woman gets you to catch feelings.
For the most part, radio friendly offerings such as “Tainted” and “Ez Up” are traded out for concept records. “Colors” [click to read] finds El getting his Roy G. Biv on and incorporating different hues into his verses, while “Guessing Game” is another lyrical exercise which challenges the listener to guess how each bar will be ended. “D.E.M.O.N.S.,” explores the evil forces around and in us, while giving Elzhi a chance to flip the aforementioned acronym for the duration of the whole second verse. Granted, none of this is particularly high concept stuff, but in the current climate of Auto-Tune vocals and dumbed-down material, it’s a refreshing change.
Those hoping for an album in the vein of Detroit Deli or SV‘s last self-titled effort won’t necessarily be disappointed–just don’t expect this album to spawn any singles for radio or the next General Motors campaign. The best moments come when Elzhi shares the mic, as Guilty Simpson and Royce Da 5′ 9″ bring out some of El‘s best battle-ready bars. Aside from the fact that “Motown 25,” “Transitional Joint,” “Can’t Save Ya” and “Talking in My Sleep” were all previously featured on the Europass mixtape, it’s hard to find fault with the album. In terms of no frills, “golden era” Hip Hop, Elzhi and Black Milk display the type of emcee/producer chemistry that hasn’t been seen since the days of Pete Rock & CL Smooth or Gangstarr. The Preface succeeds as an entertaining introduction for either Elzhi‘s burgeoning solo career or the next chapter in Slum Village‘s catalog.