When a singer collaborates with a single producer for an album, it’s important to understand what makes them both tick. Do their respective styles accentuate their artistic peculiarities? Clearly demonstrating that is The Alchemist, whose production cleanly gels into the aesthetic of whichever rapper with which he’s working. The pendulum doesn’t swing far between collaborations, but Alc subtly molds his work to fit into the rapper’s creative canvas.
The same could be said for many of The Alchemist’s peers, with Madlib, Nicholas Craven, and Harry Fraud following in his footsteps without compromising their artistry. Hit-Boy, the producer behind Nas’ career revitalizing King’s Disease series, has seen nearly every inch of Hip Hop territory. His production is often malleable enough to fit a number of different styles without reimagining the artists themselves.
While many Nas fans warmly received the three King’s Disease albums — and the one-off Magic — Hit-Boy’s production, though leagues ahead of Nas’ typical beat selection, isn’t as captivating as Nas’ raps. Despite that, these albums still bring out the best in the Queens rapper, who sounded hungrier across those four albums than he had in years.
Before working on the alleged King’s Disease 4, Hit-Boy found time to exit his comfort zone and produce the entirety of Musiq Soulchild’s latest album Victims & Villains. His collaboration raised the same question with Musiq as he did with Nas: could Hit-Boy provide the same late-career bloom for the legendary R&B singer?
Although he’s released four albums in the last decade, Musiq Soulchild has yet to find a hit with the same magnitude as “sobeautiful” off onmyradio. When the R&B singer reached out to Hit-Boy for a collection of beats, he felt like he knew what made his old tracks work. Conversely, Hit-Boy also claimed to understand how to modernize them. Thus, the mission of Victims & Villains became clear: find a sound that could send Musiq back into mainstream R&B relevancy.
Crafting that sound requires chemistry. Though Hit-Boy says he understands the strengths of Musiq’s music in the 2000s, replicating them proved to be more complicated. Beginning with the pensive “will i touch the sky,” Musiq reflects on his past, pondering how his life would have turned out if he made different decisions at crucial stages of his career. Though Musiq’s voice takes centre stage over a sparse beat, it doesn’t breathe any life into the track. Rather than elevating the harmonies, the instrumental grounds them, adding a level of irony to a track where Musiq yearns for higher success.
Musiq’s pensiveness is short-lived. Once the second track, “i remember you my ex,” kicks in, the Philadelphia singer veers into generic territory, as he sings about reminiscing over an ex that he once missed. Though he admits to missing this woman, the toxic lyricism that permeates this song and its follow-up “imreallytrynafuckwichu” is head-scratching. It’s odd to see the man who wrote “Halfcrazy” and “Just Friends (Sunny)” dive headfirst into modern R&B cliches. Where his early aughts singles treat love like the most powerful feeling on Earth, these two tracks reduce it to a commodity, which would be fine if he could sell it, but a 45-year-old man, regardless of his immense talent, isn’t pulling that off.
Across a slick four-track run from “beat of a slow dance” until “white rice déjà vu.” Musiq and Hit-Boy lock into a more cohesive sound, with Hit-Boy coming the closest to understanding the makings of a good Musiq Soulchild song. The title track, “victims & villains,” unleashes the built-up static electricity from the previous songs with an impassioned performance from Musiq and a beat from Hit-Boy that actually plays to Musiq’s strengths, which in this case, adds a streak of live instruments calling back to Musiq’s early output.
The same feeling follows in “white rice déjà vu,” but this time Musiq can’t quite catch the magic of its predecessor. “You would think it’s white rice by the way we spoon,” Musiq sings lackadaisically, phoning in certain parts of his verse. Despite underwhelming lyricism, Musiq’s performance on the track frustratingly exposes the album’s half-baked concept.
Just as quickly as Musiq and Hit-Boy find their groove, they run out of steam by the time “between love and war” comes around. In the final third of the album, Musiq’s songwriting and vocals remain passable, but Hit-Boy’s production struggles to show any color. His beats act more like tofu hoping to absorb Musiq’s charm rather than seasoning the vocals with an array of different flavors.
Though Hit-Boy’s production isn’t particularly corrosive to the album’s sporadic themes, it doesn’t build on Musiq’s lyricism, however derivative and uninspired it may be. It sounds painfully dated, as if it came unsealed way past it’s expiration date. Musiq Soulchild used to drop timeless ballads, but armed with a producer that doesn’t understand what makes his best work so captivating, Victims & Villains already feels like a product of the past.