For the most part, the three members of Dilated Peoples are looked at as equal talents. For the most part, that is. Evidence has his strengths as both a dope producer and clever emcee, while Babu touts his talents as a deejay as well as a beat machine. Rakaa, however, has had to rely solely on his talent as an emcee to keep in the running with his peers, with a more subtle approach to mic rocking that is less punchlines and metaphors, and more the strength his commanding voice, crisp delivery, and vivid descriptiveness.
This may be the reason why it’s taken so long for Rakaa to drop a solo album. While DJ Babu has kept busy with his Duck Season series and Evidence has almost three projects in the bag, Rakaa has had to work twice as hard to get out his own solo LP, as people tend to forget his singular strength as an emcee match the multiple talents of his crew. That being said, Crown of Thorns is a carefully crafted solo album that takes nothing for granted and allows him to step into the spotlight.
The album opens with the Aloe Blacc assisted title track, which finds Rakaa re-introducing himself to the audience, explaining exactly how he got to this point, over a brooding beat from producer Sid Roams. This leads directly into “The Observatory” (feat. Mad Lion), a dancehall tinged track that finds Rakaa reporting on today’s hot political climate, clearly informed as to what’s happening in the news, without going the usual wild-eyed conspiracy theorist route that many rappers (and political pundits) often employ. The brilliant “Delilah” comes next, a classically constructed Evidence track about Rakaa’s dealings with a poisonous femme fatale, as he subtly builds each verse around Special Ed’s favorite “I… am the magnificent” sample. This kind of consistency, quality and creativity is a rarity in today’s age of music.
He changes things up a bit on the doo-wop flavored “C.T.D.”, as Babu brilliantly chops the original sample, and after presents unadulterated rawness on the Oh No helmed “Assault & Battery”, attacking with the minimalist old school flair of Schooly D’s “P.S.K. (What Does It Mean)” or P.E.’s “Louder Than A Bomb”. In a pair of the album’s strongest moments, he gives an unglorified view of Los Angeles street life with gorgeous HD verbal visuals, showing both it’s positive and negative sides on “Mezcal” and “Eyes Wide” respectively.
A pair of posse cuts showcase the new and old generations of indie hip-hop, with both “Ambassador Slang” and “Aces High”. The former features a pack of new emcees going wild over a DJ Honda track, all of whom fail to outshine their host, while the latter is a scaled down and better executed version of the same idea, while each Defari, Evidence, and Fashawn hold their own over the Alchemist produced track. The ridiculous history of L.A. graffiti anthem “Mean Streak” finds Rakaa shouting out just about every relevant writer of the last thirty years, while Chali 2na destroys the hook over a blistering track from El-P. The somber “Upstairs” closes things out, as Rakaa recounts an all-too-real life and death experience with a loved one.
Upon first listen, Crown Of Thorns might seem like a haphazardly thrown together underground hip-hop project, thanks to it’s multitude of producers and guest artists. Subsequent listens show it instead as a well-thought out, perfectly planned solo record that was put together with the utmost care. It may be time for fans to finally recognize that Dilated’s third of the trio is just as strong as his Peoples.
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