Review: Black Sheep’s “From The Black Pool Of Genius”

Jul 13, 2010 1:50pm

It really is hard to believe that it’s been nineteen years since Black Sheep’s 1991 landmark debut, “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing.”  Along with De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers the duo were part of the Native Tongues, a clique of intelligently innovative hip-hop artists who weren’t afraid to have fun at one moment and then be insightful the next.  The records these groups made stand the test of time as hip-hop classics due to lyrical skill, left-field sampling and high quality forethought.  Black Sheep stood out from the bunch because they weren’t afraid to get raunchy or fowl.  They were the rougher gangsta-rap-parodying satirists of the bunch, thus maintaining the playfulness yet not quite possessing the innocence of the rest. Their moniker fit them well.  The duo consisting of Dres and Mista Lawnge also broke through into the mainstream with their hit song, “The Choice Is Yours.”  In recent months, that song has returned to consciousness thanks to a jaw-droppingly cool car ad involving giant rapping hamsters. Back in 1991, I remember it being played on pop radio next to the song “Black” by Pearl Jam.  Pop radio (especially here in New York) was an amazing thing from 1991-1994.  It was evident that both progressive alternative rock and progressive hip-hop were at a creative peak and could easily live side by side together, complimenting each other quite well.  It’s an imaginative element missing from most radio stations today. Along with “The Choice Is Yours,” Black Sheep’s debut album spawned a few more noteworthy singles, mainly, “The Choice Is Yours,” “Strobelite Honey” and a remix of “Similak Child” that was not quite as effective as the incredible album version.  The group seemed on the verge of big things.  Dres, as a lyricist possessed great confidence and gravitas in his delivery.  When the duo returned in 1994 with their follow-up, “Non-Fiction” it was evident that the old pull was somehow fading.  The record wasn’t as good and it didn’t do as well sales-wise, either.  It lacked the fresh, get-the-people-moving vibe of its predecessor.  Dres and Lawnge were the same guys but the jams just weren’t as monumental.  They released “Without A Doubt” as a single, a run-of-the-mill, somewhat slower-than-it-should-be party jam, which lacked personality.  It would’ve made a better second single had they released “City Lights” as a single first.  Needless to say, after “Non-Fiction’ proved to be less impressive, Dres and Lawnge disappeared from the hip-hop landscape.  In 2004, on Prince Paul and Dan The Automator’s criminally under-sold second Handsome Boy Modeling School album, out of nowhere Dres returned, guesting on the track, “First.. And Then.”  It was a new awakening.  Hearing that track as a fan of real, classic hip-hop, it was like, “Where has this guy been???”    In 2007, the group suddenly returned and released the little-heard record, “8WM/Novakane.”  Lawnge appeared on that album but soon broke ties with Dres during the recording process, making Black Sheep a Dres solo act.   So, “From The Black Pool Of Genius” officially should be considered a rebirth for both Black Sheep and Dres.  And what a rebirth it is.  Dres is still his old self.  He’s not afraid to speak his mind and he’s not afraid to offend, but frankly, if you are easily offended, this might not be the group (or the genre) for you.  Dres also is older and wiser.  “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” was roughly half his lifetime ago.  He’s still brash and defiant, but there’s a boost consciousness and social awareness on this newer disc.  Lawnge is gone, subtracting his repeated jokes of sexual endowment.  In his absence, Dres is able to get down to business and deliver the kind of record that he seemingly always had in him.  What’s refreshing about this record is that Dres doesn’t try to follow modern trends.  These songs are classic hip-hop brought back to its basics.  Driving beats, scratchy samples and lyrical momentum power these tracks.  No Autotune. No attempts for pop crossover.  Simply, real, Native Tongue-style hip-hop.  “Splash (Intro)” opens the record with a soulful bass and string sample.  The “Intro” in its title unfortunately downplays it.  This is a two minute and forty-seven second, fully formed song which might even make a good, (albeit low-key) single.  It does I suppose serve as a reintroduction to Dres as he proclaims, “You ain’t even seen the last or the best of me.” “Forever Luvlee” brings to mind some of the best elements of “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing,” even down to Dres’ voice being really out front in the mix.  On the track he discusses his extravagant possessions and lifestyle but talks about how he still lives in the projects.  Black Sheep’s music has always been heavy with paradoxes.  The act’s existence has always been at odds with the conveyed image.  One could argue that the Native Tongues as a collective helped birth the newer movement of consciousness rap, a less materialistic, less sexist, more organic style. But Black Sheep often sat at odds with that notion.  The music always shared a similar vibe to the rest, but there have always been a few more mentions of goods and more references to women many would find offensive on their records.  The question is all in intention.  Have they been lampooning the booze and honey-loving groups that have clogged the mainstream in order to get something deeper into the mix?  It’s not always easy to tell.  But here, Dres, after listing all his goods says, “I’m for the hood yo. / I’m for the struggle, B. / And that’s worth more to me than ice and bubbly.”  He’s saying while he may have expensive things, he’s still one of the every day people.  Dres seems authentic and sincere in his delivery and this point, which in other people’s hands could come off as inflated nonsense just meant to prove “realness,” seems genuine coming from him. He’s still the guy who likes drinking Kool-Aid and walking around outside in his slippers. “Reason To Pray” has a smooth beat with a string-section loop.  There’s a new-found religiosity bubbling to the surface of his music.  Perhaps religiosity may be the wrong word, because it’s not really overtly religious but more spiritually minded.  So when he busts out with the chorus of “Everybody’s got a reason to pray,” it’s a little shocking at first.  The old Black Sheep lived on orgy jokes and songs about picking up women.  This is closer to Common’s vein.  It’s a new shade for Dres that he wears surprisingly well.   “Elevation” verges on acid-rock funk as Dres delivers his smooth rhyme flow at peak form.  It used to be said that John Coltrane wouldn’t ever leave any empty spaces in his solos.  He’d play continuously when it was his turn to jam.  Here, Dres does the same thing with his lyrical delivery.  For nearly a minute and twenty seconds at a time he delivers an unstopped, well-calculated exhibition of rhyme.  You know something has changed in him when he says, “Don’t underestimate the power of a positive thought.”  He’s more uplifting, without coming off as a do-no-wrong goody-two-shoes.  He’s trying to boost people while still keeping in gritty references and being true to his own style.  “Party Tonight” is a butter-smooth party jam.  If this had been done in the days of “Non-Fiction,” somehow I think it would’ve lacked the essence held here.  Dres seems determined for the comeback he deserves, so even his laid-back tracks possess more momentum.  Jean Grae delivers a nice guest-verse turn, as well, making this an ideal track for hot summer parties.  “Power To The Pih-Poh” makes the most of sampled vinyl scratches and pops and again makes use of a rather momentous level of smoothness. “It’s ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re headed,” Dres raps, adding, “The key to community is the unity of the people.”  Rhymefest guests, giving the track an effective timestamp with his mentions of Obama and the counrty’s troubled economic climate.  The message is essentially that it’s really tough out there and that we’ve got to stick together and stand up for our beliefs. Dres and Rhymefest have delivered something special. It’s an uplifting message about how in this new political climate how no matter what in society is holding you down, you should rise up and try to succeed.  It’s more than just a “get yours” kind of track.  Again, Dres shows he now would sit well beside the likes of Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli.  “Born To Che” is one of the strongest, yet simultaneously most controversial tracks on the record.  In it, Dres discusses how he’s dissatisfied with the politically correct nature of modern society.  What makes this such a strong track is that within a short, three-minute span, he addresses a laundry list of issues.  He covers so much ground here that I guarantee that a lot of the same people who will offended by one line will be right on board with another.  Dres thinks our society is too sensitive. He covers his dislike of PETA and the crackdown on casual comments many people would consider homophobic. He scorns those, “fighting the pill without caution / While you’re blowing up a building to stop one abortion,” adding that the “same evil be raping children under a steeple.”  Yes, this is dense, heavy stuff and not everyone will be on board, but Dres has never been known to not express the way he truly feels.  “Don’t talk and drive. / Don’t drive and drink. / And before you speak your mind just make sure you think,” he says, lamenting a world where “they’ll build a stadium before they fix Ground Zero.”  To him, in our modern world, “threat levels are high and morale is low.”  Say what you want about the sentiments, this is political rap gold.  He’s being true to himself and his beliefs while making people think.  That’s what pure, real hip-hop should be all about.  It’s not about saying what’s popular and making everyone happy.  It’s about rhyming about what you know, no matter how gritty it might sound.  It’s about “keeping it real” and not putting on a front.  Poseurs have sucked the life out of the notion of “keeping it real.”  I don’t mean it in that vacant sense.  I mean in the way of being honest.  As far as honestly depicting his point of view, Dres hits this one way out of the park. Even this track’s foes can’t deny its sincerity.  I’ll hand it to Eminem that his recent album “Recovery” is much better than last year’s “Relapse,” but he needs to listen to this record to find out how to thoughtfully tackle controversy.  Here Dres makes Eminem look like empty shock-filled pop-rap.  It’s evident that Dres is aiming more for Chuck D. or B.D.P. territory and he gets there! “Muy Bueno” is next.  How funny is it to hear Rosie Perez rapping the hook?  Backed by a beat that sounds like it is lifted from a Latin-infused Blaxploitation film, this again finds Dres in a very strong place. “Come Back Home” featuring P&V, has Dres mining more conventional, R&B-flavored hip-hop, and while in comparison to the rest of the album, this track seems rather pedestrian, he still manages to make it work.  On “Important Fact,” Dres goes head-to-head with Psycho Les of the Beatnuts. The beat has a hardcore bounce with a sample of what sounds like a child singing, “That’s an important fact. Get some money.” The tone recalls Jay-Z’s “Annie”-sampling “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem.)” On this track, Dres gives advice on how to remain successful. “After you get the dough, / Crib before whip. / Whip before jewels. / Rock jewels with clips / Dough goes with fam. / Fam before friends. / Friends before fools. / Stick to the plan.”  Again, this track shows Dres is really focused on coming back in a big way. On “Winner” he teams with AZ, who many will remember for his well-respected 1995 album “Doe Or Die.”  Here, both men rap over a funky, low-riding harpsichord loop. “Birds Of A Feather” has rightfully gotten the most attention of all the tracks on this album.  Not only is it the single, but it also serves as a mini-Native Tongues reunion with verses from Q-Tip, Trugoy the Dove from De La Soul and Mike G. from the Jungle Brothers.  All of them prove their classic stature here.  Plus, as an added bonus, the beat is built around an excellent sample of Fiona Apple’s “The Way Things Are,” from her excellent second record, “When The Pawn…”  (By the way, Fiona, if you are reading this, please release another record soon!) On “For The Record,” Dres raps over a stuttering supper club piano sample about being exposed to drugs and violence at a young age and how he’s grown wiser with age.  Again society is examined and Dres serves as a sharp observer.  He keeps his cool always and keeps this track smooth and reflective. 
“Victory” has a driving beat and is single-worthy as Dres pats himself on the back for all his achievements.  Given its title, perhaps it’s to be considered a well-earned victory lap near the end of the album.  His voice escalates to a rocking shout as the beat builds and gets louder.  No doubt, this track would be a good motivator at sports events.  Crowd noise is even built into the beat.  For Dres, this is a strong ode to his survival.  The record closes with “Dusk (Outro)” featuring Mums.  It’s a sort of rambling piece, but it’s less than two minutes so it can be easily forgiven, given the high-quality of the rest of the album.
“From The Black Pool Of Genius” sits firmly beside Q-Tip’s “The Renaissance” and Mos Def’s “The Ecstatic” as must-have, recent hip-hop records. Dres has brought Black Sheep back to life and proven himself to be among the most gifted M.C.s working today.  He’s honest and direct and not for everyone, but he knows exactly what he’s doing.  After this record, I’d like to see him become an in-demand guest on other people’s records. This record was loaded with guests.  Lesser rappers would’ve gotten lost in such a mix.  But Dres is the kind of rapper who never got lost.  Put him on a record with other people and he can only compliment and challenge them.  This is real hip-hop brought back to the table.  Intelligently skilled hip-hop deserves to find its place back on modern pop and hip-hop radio.  Would you rather hear this or something that is Autotuned to death?  I know my answer, but ultimately, the choice is yours.  

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