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21 January, 2007@12:00 am

    These days, making hip-hop for hip-hop’s sake, by paying tribute to the culture’s four elements, isn’t exactly what’s in demand. But the Visionaries don’t seem to be aiming for mass appeal today, nor have they ever. For this six-man crew, preserving the essence of hip-hop is vital, even if only the true b-boys and b-girls are listening. When LMNO raps, “I’m a be OK without any major radio play” on the opening track of the Visionaries’ fourth album, We Are The Ones, you believe him. Eight years into the group’s career, 2Mex, LMNO, Key Kool, DJ Rhettmatic, Dannu, and Lord Zen have no one to impress but themselves. And so they uphold their true school sound while offering a few progressions along the way.

     Before listening to a Visionaries’ album, you pretty much know certain types of tracks are coming. As usual, they deliver a Southern Cali anthem, a turntablism cut, and a track dedicated to the breakers (“In The Good,” “Talkin’ Handjive,” and “Crop Circles” respectively). Even though the listener knows what’s around the corner, these traditional numbers are some of the album’s best-particularly the lead single “In The Good.” Atop a classic left coast, Dre-esque beat, each one of the Visionaries takes us in detail back into the ‘hoods they grew up in, whether in San Diego or in the South Bay of L.A. And the chorus, provided by the husky-toned vocalist Ariano, helps tie things together.

     When it comes to the unexpected material, the results are a little mixed. Lucky for the Visionaries, they were able to receive a production from J Dilla before his untimely passing for the uplifting number “All Right.” Here, Dilla’s dusty female vocal samples and a muted horn are ideal for this song about reflecting on family struggles. It doesn’t even sound like a beat the Visionaries would normally select, yet it’s a perfect fit for their most personal effort to date. Then on “Do Gooders,” an acoustic guitar-laced beat by J Rocc works just as nicely with the group’s tales of being stereotyped and misunderstood. But then the uber-eccentric singing of Georgia Anne Muldrow on the song winds up clashing with the Visionaries’ clear-cut style more than it compliments it. Sure, they wanted to take a risk here, which is respectable, but the addition just doesn’t work.

    Lyrically, the group’s tendency to fall into “let’s reform misguided MCs” mode also works against their favor. On the Kev Brown-produced “1%,” they beg unimaginative MCs to “do something.” Then on “Lately,” they hop into soapbox mode as they proclaim that “music is a mission, not a competition.” Now, these tracks aren’t bad, but preaching gets old real quick. The Visionaries do redeem themselves when they opt to talk about themselves and not others on the feel good dancehall-tinged heater “4wd” or the rugged flashback high school anthem “School Daze.”

    We Are The Ones sees this L.A.-area crew do what they’ve done since ’98, and on occasion their rising maturity is noticeable through their poignant reflections. Looking past a few misfit and preachy tracks, this is a solid effort.

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