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30 September, 2008@4:27 pm

There was a time when Ras Kass was considered something like the West Coast Nas – a street, but cerebral and intellectual MC, naming albums after Eldridge Cleaver books (Soul on Ice) and doing songs about the history of slavery and religion (“Nature of the Threat”).  He also had major skills, making him a compelling new artist.

Unfortunately, that was over 10 years ago, and a series of disappointing releases, record company troubles and jail sentences since then have left little buzz around Ras Kass’ name.

According to his MySpace page, Ras Kass is currently serving time again, but Institutionalized Vol. 2 seems to have been made after his previous bid because he makes references to getting off probation and there’s a song with Proof of D12, who died in 2006.  In any case, the pain and reflection you might expect from someone who’d been locked up isn’t here, leaving us with another halfway decent, but underwhelming record.

When he does dip into that potential for creative output, the results are promising, as on “Ups and Downs,” where he breaks in with this rhyme over the beat from LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.”

“When I’m alone in my cell, sometimes I stare at the bars/and in the back of my mind I hear my conscience call/telling me I need an alibi sweet as a dove/O.J., I see I need gloves.”

References to his jail time are few and far between, and its understandable why it would be painful to go there, but when he replaces it with material about hoes, chrome rims, and jewelry (“What It Might Be”), it just comes off sounding ridiculous.

On “Behind the Musick,” Ras does get into detail about his record company troubles–his having been a prisoner of Priority for eight years.  He makes some good points about the fickle music industry, the merging of hip hop and pop, the tendency to use the same hot producer on every single song and the emphasis on sales over creativity.  He boasts that he doesn’t care about selling records, but then why has he not just now, but throughout his career, wasted his breathe on songs about strippers (“Lapdance” from Rasassination) and stumbling through the club (“We Go In”)?

The other thing about “Behind the Musick,” is that it becomes a bit of a laundry list.  At one point, he’s actually complaining about the lack of medical and dental benefits, which is certainly an important issue, but I’m not sure you’re going to buy a hip hop album to hear someone complain about his lousy record deal.

Regardless, there are some highlights. “Eyes Don’t Lie” and “I’m All That” are bangin’ tracks.  “John is Real” gives a glimpse of Ras’ smart, sharp lyrical ability, and “Ironman Thug” is a clever use of a sample, as the superhero/rapper combination continues to seem like a good mix.

Unfortunately, we just expect a lot more from someone like Ras Kass.  The skill is there.  The pressure should be off, no one is expecting him to become a big star anymore.  But if he’s going to be relevant, he needs to deliver something a lot more focused and worthy of the promise he once had.  – Stefan Schumacher

  Mixtape D.L.
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