Various Artists: Lyricist Lounge: Volume One

Various Artists
Lyricist Lounge: Volume One
Rawkus Records

WITH THE EXCEPTION of "Body Rock," the just-released single featuring Mos Def, Tash (of the Alkaholiks), and the ubiquitous Q-Tip, you won't find another cut from this hip-hop anthology on hip-hop radio. That's a damn shame, because its diverse repertoire of artists makes Lyricist Lounge one of the few multidisc releases of the past year with a strong enough lineup to merit a second disc. The Lyricist Lounge, a weekly club event at Tramps in New York, has become legendary for allowing any wannabe MC to submit a demo and rock the party alongside a legend (perhaps local rhymer Beyond should send a tape), and the album re-creates the essence of that communal hip-hop vibe.

The first disc is hosted by De La Soul and plays like a mix tape of their favorite underground rappers. Many of the songs possess the same mellow, jazz-oriented beats that epitomize the Native Tongue family. A somber bass accentuates a unique xylophone hook in "Keep Pouring," a gem from the Diaz Brothers featuring Matrix and Abutta. "Action Guaranteed" is the mandatory ghetto love track, courtesy of O.C. and Rass Kass, whose sexually explicit lyrics are softened by a trippy synthesized piano melody. The disc is rounded out with an excerpt from the D.J. Stretch Armstrong Show, featuring a memorable freestyle session by rappers Common, Black Thought, Pharoahe Monch, and Absolute.

The hosts for disc two are Kool Keith (the mastermind of Ultramagnetic MCs) and Sir Menelik. With such unusual entries as Saul Williams's "Ohm" (three minutes of meditative humming and spoken word over laser sounds) and A.L.'s "Lyrics" (which sports a psychedelic hook reminiscent of Art of Noise's "Moments of Love"), the second disc is a bit harder to get with than disc one. This shouldn't come as a surprise, given its hosts' roots in abstract hip hop.

While beats dominate disc one, this second set is a showcase for lyricists. "C.I.A. (Criminals in Action)" is an unusual track that pairs KRS-One with the Last Emperor and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. Surprisingly, of these three self-styled revolutionaries, it's "Big Zack" who blesses the track with the best verses ("C.I.A. I'll see ya' later/'Cause your day is comin' soon/I flip this shit like Al Pacino/In his Dog Day Afternoon"). Even better than Zack is Talib Kweli. In "Manifesto," this skilled lyricist breaks down what it takes to be a true MC, point by point: "First, you must respect yourself as an artist/If you don't respect yourself, then your rhymes are garbage/Two, make sure your crew is as tight as you/'Cause when them 'niggas fallin' off they gonna bring you down too..."

No album is perfect, and there are a couple of second-stringers to be found hanging around in the back of the Lounge. The Indelible MC's "Weight" doesn't have any, and Bahamadia and Rah Digga's "Be OK" is just that. Still, three or four underwhelming tracks out of 26 leaves plenty of good listening, and Lyricist Lounge counts as more than mere footnotes from the hip-hop underground.

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