Detroit emcee eLZhi has been heralded as one of hip-hop’s most talented for years now, but to some, there was something missing. Despite the witty punchlines, multi-syllabic rhyme patterns and conceptual genius shown on songs like “Guessing Game” and “Rules of Rap,” harsher critics said he couldn’t evoke emotion—one of musician’s most important tasks. Well, the years since his official debut album The Preface have been wrought with painful situations: his former manager HexMurda had a nearly fatal stroke, and his group Slum Village was dramatically torn apart through label politics and what he saw as betrayal from his partners. With eLmatic, eLZhi seems to have drawn from those experiences and read between the lines of Nas’ classic debut Illmatic, to capture the intangibles that make his technical skills truly undeniable.
On eLmatic, eLZhi pays tribute to Nas’ debut by combining the original’s song concepts with personal experiences or tweaks to make the songs his own. Right after the warm-up round of “The Genesis,” he flips Nas’ seminal “NY State of Mind” into his own “Detroit State of Mind” with references of Rose wine and crackheads selling stolen HDTVs instead of Nas’ timeless drops of Moet and drug addicts pushing broken amps. Later, Nas’ O.G. homage to his homie locked up on “One Love” is reworked into eLZhi’s tale about a romantic friendship with a woman who had a tumultuous upbringing. Despite “Life’s A Bitch” not sticking to Nas and AZ’s rhymes about life’s highs, lows and in-betweens, it still satisfies with eLZhi and Royce Da 5’9”’s solid individual verses and collaborative chemistry. The disc’s potency reiterates how timeless Nas’ album was, while still showing how talented eLZhi’s skills are to not simply prompt listeners to turn this off to hear the original.
While the technical aspects of these songs is respectable, it’s the emotion that makes them memorable. The bravado on “Detroit State of Mind” sounds like a shield to deal with the harsh realities eLZhi is describing around him, and the confidence of “The World Is Yours” meshes the confidence of its song title. The lighter tone of “One Love” seems to wistfully remember his times with the song’s female subject. Despite an inhuman efficiency, eLZhi doesn’t sound like a machine—his mastery of vocal tones and vivid imagery makes these experiences instead of songs.
Still, perhaps the most distinguishing factor of eLmatic is the inclusion of Will Sessions. The four-piece band from Detroit—known for its work on Black Milk’s albums and sold out live performances with the likes of Phat Kat and Guilty Simpson—re-created Illmatic’s soundbeds for this, and the results are astounding. Songs like “Represent” are kept to maintain their effective simplicity, while “Halftime” notably amplifies the previous version’s understated sounds to give it new life. But the band doesn’t just replay the beats and play to the background; they use their instruments and musical know-how to expound on songs’ samples or to compose their own offspring. “The World Is Yours” keeps the scratching elements of the original while adding a melodic piano solo after the rhymes die down, and the tail end of “Life’s A Bitch” re-enacts Olu Dara’s horns before unexpectedly flowing into a rendition of Gap Band’s “Yearning For Your Love” with a cameo from Mint Condition’s Stokley Williams. “One Love” is the crowning musical achievement of the project. Halfway through the song, the band seamlessly transitions from verse-ready chords into a soothing arrangement that incorporates myriad instruments—Fener Rhodes piano, electric guitars, congas, tambourines, and more—while still using the original snares as its guide.
By the time eLmatic ends with a Pete Rock shoutout and two incredible bonus tracks, it’s clear that this isn’t one of the “tributes” that other emcees have saturated the game with throughout the past couple years. Instead, the result is a project that will jog memories from ’94 and create memories in 2011 all at once.
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