On paper, the prospect of a *new* Slum Village album – at this point in the game – just sounds like a bad idea. Two of the core members, J. Dilla and Baatin have passed away, and there’s already a shroud of negativity surrounding the group’s final LP, Villa Manifesto, as remaining members T3 and Elzhi are having their beefs play out online via Twitter and various blogs. All of this sounds like a recipe for disaster, something like that 2002 Gravediggaz album that only had Frukwon holding it down after Too Poetic died. There’s just no way this could possibly be good – except that it is.
Slum has had their share of shake-ups and break-ups over the years, with Dilla becoming a “satellite” member of the group, and super lyricist Elzhi joining the ranks to help flesh things out a bit. With Baatin passing last year, the prospect of another LP from these guys seemed impossible, or more so, impossible-to-be-good, but the end result is the most true-to-form SV record since Fantastic Vol. 2.
That’s not to say that Slum ever lost their way – they always did them, but the sound that defined them on Fantastic Vol. 2 (and Vol. 1, for that matter) seemed to slowly disappear, as collaborations with Kanye West, John Legend, Scott Storch, evolved their sound. It was never really for the worse – they were always able to hold it down, but that classic sound of their debut was lost once Dilla left the group.
With Villa Manifesto, we seen a return to form, as longtime post-Dilla producer Young RJ helms the bulk of the production, and spirit of J. Dilla looms over the release, appearing on five tracks in either vocal or production form. This makes a huge impact on the overall sound of the album, as genuine Dilla lyrical moments like “Scheming” (also featuring Phife and Posdonous) and “Earl Flinn” feel like a heartfelt reunion with your best childhood friend. Even songs “Lock It Down” and “We’ll Show You”, both produced by Dilla, have that classic minimalist feel of the group’s early material. On the latter, guest Illa J sounds hauntingly like Dilla on the mic, addressing the topic directly. “This be J. Dilla in my chain / so I spit every single verse in his name / I don’t give a fuck if we sound the same / still gonna throw a round of flames and clown the game / talkin’ about me? all you niggas sound the same / beats wack as fuck and you’re style is lame.”
While the addition of Dilla all over the record helps make it a “true” Slum Village LP, credit is due to the rest of the crew. Like Dilla, you don’t realize just how missed Baatin was (who was notably absent on their 2005 self titled LP) until you hear his voice for the last time here. Tracks like “Dance” and “Don’t Fight The Feeling” (feat. Dwele) are classic Slum Village, thanks to the production of Dave West and Mr. Porter, respectively. Baatin’s vocals here make you realize just how much he will be missed as well.
There are a few moments where they venture out creatively, but still remain grounded within their signature sound. The commercially viable single “Faster” (feat. Colin Munroe) is a slickly produced track closer to “Tainted” or “Selfish”, but still works despite being the album’s most polished track. “The Set Up” finds T3, Baatin, and Elzhi trading stories over a rolling Hi-Tek track, while the ominous “Where Do We Go From Here” finds them poignantly trading vocals with another “broken” group, Little Brother.
While Elzhi’s appearances on the album are more limited than on previously releases, it’s not for the bad. He is just as relevant member of the group as Dilla, and gets equal time to shine here. The smaller doses of Elzhi almost help the album – (and that’s not a slight on El, as he is easily the group’s most lyrically able) – but like the title of the album suggests, the aim of this album was to create nostalgia, to remind us of the original manifesto of the group that began in Dilla’s basement. In the end, we get a surprisingly dope and well put together album, one that almost plays as if every member was still alive and everything is still fantastic. Hold tight.
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