Throughout Gnarls Barkley’s video for “Smiley Faces”, it shows both Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo looming in the background throughout several defining moments in music history. Of course, all of these appearances were added using C.G.I. (a la Forest Gump), but in the real world, there is a group of three brothers that have actually been present behind the scenes in several moments of hip-hop history. This could be one of the reasons why a small bidding war was held for Sa-Ra Creative Partners, between labels like Aftermath, Star Trak, Def Jam, Atlantic, and Virgin – ultimately settling them at under Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music banner (but more on that in second).
So what was this long history? It all started back in the 90′s, when each of the Partners were on their own creative paths. Shafiq had been producing under Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate banner, working on projects for Body Count and Ice himself. Later working with legends like Afrika-Bambattaa, Lord Finesse, Prince (!), and Duran Duran (!!), Shafiq even contributed to scoring classic gangster films New Jack City and Deep Cover. Meanwhile, OmMas was in New York City, a understudy of Jam Master Jay, helping fashion groups like Onyx and 50 Cent, plus working with Lauryn Hill, during his tenure under Sony. Finally, Taz was responsible for being Dr. Dre’s right hand man and talent scout during the creation of 2001, most notably ghost producing on songs like “Xxplosive”.
After working with both Kanye West and John Legend, trio of well-dressed gentlemen found a home at G.O.O.D. Music, but that alliance was short-lived. In 2006, the label released the Set-Up & Justifications EP, a promotional-only CD that featured 6 tracks - 3 songs, 3 skits - chronicling Sa-Ra’s journey to the planet Niggatron (yes, you read that correctly). This spaced out sampler was co-signed by Kanye West, who appeared on the outro, yet the music contained therein was so far ahead of its time, the masses just weren’t ready for it. Once Sony absorbed G.O.O.D. Music, Sa-Ra left the label and thus, The Hollywood Recordings was born, thanks to Babygrande.
The sound of Sa-Ra can be traced to influences from a multitude of artists, from Prince to George Clinton to Digital Underground to De La Soul to Slum Village to N.E.R.D. Tailored for the 30′s-the-new-20, sunglasses-at-night cool crowd, the music of Sa-Ra is experimental, bass heavy, spaced out, funky, and soulful. Amongst the album’s 19 tracks, Sa-Ra is allowed to flex its various styles, from hip-hop to funk to soul. The album opens with the cooled out “Hey Love”, combining sung and rapped vocals, channeling the post-Native Tounge era, while “Glorious” sounds like the rawest of Dilla beats. Then they switch it up on you with the more form-fitting acid-jazz track, “So Special” (feat. Rozzi Daime), which sounds a bit like a song you would (and probably will) hear in an Express Men’s dressing room. Mellow head-nodders like “And If” (feat. Ty of Ty and Cory), “Hollywood (Redux)”, and “Fly Away” (feat. Erykah Badu & Georgie Anne Muldrow) keep the album moving at a nice laid-back pace.
Just when you think its time to break out the incense and coffee blends, they flip the script yet again. The album includes a handful of straightforward hip-hop tracks, some of which work better than others. Talib Kweli takes center-stage on the abrasive “Feel The Bass”, which works much better than the Capone-N-Noreaga reunion that follows, “Not On Our Level”. Kurupt appears on “Lean On Me”, mirroring his classic appearance on Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. Two (“Front and Back”). Pharoahe Monch adds his flavor to “Fish Fillet”, while on “Thrilla”, Dilla gets his heartbeat props. While each of these tracks feature a lot more “body” than typical songs we are used to from these artists, each of them work, for the most part.
While each member plays their role evenly in the group, Sa-Ra could use a more defined “frontman” (a Black Thought or a Shock G, if you will); perhaps even Ty, who helps spearhead songs like “And If” and “Do Me Girl”. Either way, some of their best tracks come off when they are just doing their thing, without the high-profile collaborators. Songs like “White (On The Floor)” and “Bitch” celebrate their hedonistic, dick-in-the-mash-potato-party lifestyles, while backpack beat, “Ladies Sing”, simply gets the head-nodding, without assistance from any big collaborators.
Sa-Ra’s music is on a different level than much everything else out there, and for that reason, it may be over the heads of the mainstream audience. But fuck them. This is the type of record that seems way-out at first, and then by the fifth listen has you championing it to all of your friends. With their official full-length debut, Black Fuzz, still on the way, the Sa-Ra Creative Partners have a bright future ahead of them – one that seemingly they have already visited.
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