For the most part “vanity projects” don’t pan out. What is a “vanity project” you ask? It’s when a celebrity becomes so big (and so vein), that they feel they can do anything. The problem with this type of project is that while the average rapper, actor, or athlete, is probably really good at their craft, they aren’t so good in other crafts. Case in point, Shaq is a much better basketball player than he is a rapper or actor (thus making rapping and acting his vanity projects). So when it was announced that Mike Shinoda of rock outfit Linkin Park would embark on a solo hip-hop album, fans and critics of the genre were obviously a bit skeptical. After all, this is nothing more than another vanity project, right? Surprisingly, not so.
While Linkin Park is truly an MTV-ready rock-band, they cut their teeth on hip-hop a few years back with their “Reanimation” remix album, which featured remixes of Linkin Park tracks with Pharoahe Monch, Chali 2na, Zion I, Evidence, Aceyalone, Rasco, Planet Asia, Black Thought, and many others. They followed suit again in 2004 with “Collision Course”, which capitalized on the mash-up trend, enlisting Jay-Z to collaborate with them on the six track EP. So LP’s connection to hip-hop has always been there, however their aggressive rock sound has always dominated their music. Fort Minor, on the other hand, extracts Linkin Park emcee and keyboard player Mike Shinoda, leaving the rock sound behind, for an album that executive producer Jay-Z calls an “underground hip-hop record with big sound”.
Shinoda takes his craft seriously, in fact a lot more serious than many rappers holding a major label recording contract (which is a sad state of affairs). After producing the entire album himself, rhyming on every track, writing every hook, and even designing the cover art, he then took “The Rising Tied” to Jay-Z and asked him to select the best 16 tracks. Also featuring recent signees to his new Machine Shop imprint, Styles Of Beyond as unofficial members of the group (as featured on six of the album’s tracks), he has produced the surprise sleeper of the year, and easily one of the year’s best albums.
Jigga is correct in his branding of this record as an underground hip-hop record, as that’s what it is. Shinoda has brilliantly fooled the TRL audience into buying a smart, well produced, hip-hop album. It begins with the powerful intro “Remember The Name”, which introduces Mike and Styles of Beyond as Fort Minor, over snapping drums and symphonic strings. Immediately following with “Right Now”, Shinoda shows off his own rainy pianos, as he, along with S.O.B. and Black Thought, paint beautiful portraits of the naked city’s eight million stories. It picks up steam when “Petrified” kicks in, an abrasive braggadocio filled party rocker that draws inspiration from the classic Cypress Hill sound (watch out for those neighing horses).
He drops the quintessential “speaker-tester” on “In Stereo” (to which Jay-Z attests “that beat is hard!”), but it’s when “Back Home” kicks in you start to realize what an unbelievably consistent album this is. The choppy guitar licks immediately get the head nodding, but when Common drops in, the deal is immediately sealed - and make no mistake, Shinoda’s confident flow has no problem keeping up next to the Chi-Town legend. But everything really comes down to “Cigarettes”, by far the album’s most brilliant song. Here, Shinoda compares mainstream hip-hop music to smoking, stating: “It’s just like a cigarette, it’s something that I do / once in a while, between me and you / it’s just like a cigarette / nobody’s really fooled / I don’t want the truth, I want to feel fuckin’ cool.” This love/hate letter to hip-hop doesn’t scold the art form, but instead takes the blame for being a part of the problem.
Then the album takes a more up-tempo direction, with songs like “Believe Me”, which features S.O.B, plus solo percussion from legendary bongo drummer, Bobo; and again on the piano driven “High Road” with John Legend. As things begin to wind down, we find Shinoda dipping a little deeper into his rock roots, on “Red To Black” (feat. Kenna and John Matranga) and “Slip”, as Shinoda tackles topical subject matter about everyday people. (However, neither track take the rock influence to LP levels of angst - which is kind of a good thing).
But after delivering 16 solid tracks, Shinoda doesn’t stop there. Digging a bit deeper, we find that there was a lot of material recorded for this project, some of which surfaced in other places. The “deluxe” version of the album includes an additional three tracks (including the questionable omission “Be Somebody” with Lupe Fiasco, last heard on Kanye’s “Touch The Sky”). On top of all that, Shinoda even teamed with DJ Green Lantern for the Fort Minor “We Major” mixtape, which included an additional 16 tracks of quality material with Styles of Beyond, Apathy, Celph Titled, and Ghostface. Each of these tracks were exclusive remixes or not included on the album for one reason or another (**cough** sample clearances **cough**).
To phrase an old adage, Mike Shinoda is taking this rap shit serious, not chalking this up as just another vanity project. In an age when one of the best hip-hop albums of the year comes from a member of a popular rock band, it says a lot about the state of the art.
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