Smif-N-Wessun is one of the most beloved underground acts of the past decade. “Dah Shinin’” is still on heavy rotation in this listener’s stereo, as it is for many of you readers. Their most recent “Reloaded” was more than worthy, but it’s only natural that the duo of Tek and Steele would try their hand with solo efforts. “It Is What It Is” is Tek’s first official project without his right hand man, Steele.
Overall, the results of the album aren’t too surprising. Essentially, “It Is What It Is” is, well, what it is: a Smif-N-Wessun album without Steele. The usual conversational pieces are the same (gunplay, pharmaceutical distribution). Tek’s delivery is the same. The beat selection, for the most part, is the same. This isn’t like Andre 3000 getting some freedom and going spacey on “The Love Below”. Tek’s pretty much the same guy on his own as when he was one half of Smif-N-Wessun. This is both good and bad. It’s good because we all know Tek has skills and ferocity behind the mic. No question, one of the better street poets around. But the downside is, honestly, he just can’t carry the whole album on his own, especially considering the limited topics covered. What made Smif-N-Wessun projects click was the chemistry and interaction between the two. With one gone, something’s obviously missing.
As mentioned before, the instrumentals are generally what you would expect out of Smif-N-Wessun; minimalist with thick drums. Just what the doctor ordered for trigger-happy guys like themselves. The difference is that some of the beats here seem to have been tamed. This is noticeable because on harder, sub-rumbling tracks (“BK Freestyle”), Tek really comes with it, but lighter productions (“Can’t Do What I Do”) seem to drain his enthusiasm. The drums are there, but they’re more whimpers than roars.
The other variation is the inclusion of a handful of reggae-flavored beats (“All Massive”, “#1 Sound”, “My Gun (Remix)”, “Nothing’s Gonna Change”). The best of the bunch, “Nothing’s Gonna Change” shows that Tek can diversify his topics when he wants to. He spends a few verses recognizing his love for family, friends, and significant others: “Look pretty, we been down this road before / I was in the studio, I don’t know that girl / Must’ve seen me on the block, one day she came through / You know we out doin’ what the gangstas do / But ma, real talk, you my one and only / these lonely dirty bitches only wish they know me / Yeah I fucked up one time and cheated on you / All the rocks I brought you, might as well have stoned you / See, that’s what I’m talking ’bout, your smile and glow / As long as I’m breathin’, just want you to know?”. But this non-violent song is an exception to the rule. The rest of the album is a musical one-track mind.
The best cut on the album is (surprise, surprise) his collabo with Steele, “Young Man”. The Cocoa B’s pass along street wisdom to the next generation of hood residents over moaning strings and a simplistically dense drums: “No strain, no gain / can’t avoid the rain / Young mayne, keep it in ya heart you’ll have it made / Young mayne, take it slow don’t speed in this lane”. In “Keys”, Tek flips the “Diary of Alicia Keys” intro song (“Harlem’s Nocturne”) and turns it into an imagined conversation with the dime songstress. The track is really brief, but the splicing is done reasonably well and makes for an interesting listen. Besides, who can blame Tek for wanting to get to know Alicia, even if it is pretend?
Disappointments include the hollow threats of “Respect”, the awful hook and lack of focus on “Image On My Mind”, the forgettable and vain “Forget About The Past”, and the boring “Can’t Do What I Do”. On the bright side, “Forget About The Past” wins the comedy award for the line “Black, Puerto Rican, or Haitian / No fat chicks, that was one occasion”. At least he’s honest.
For hardcore Smif-N-Wessun fans, this is worth purchase. If you really are hardcore, you probably already own it and in the process of writing me a threatening email for hatin’ on half of your favorite group. For the rest, an interesting listen if you’ve got cash laying around. Otherwise, stick to a completely assembled Smif-N-Wessun on “Reloaded”.
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