Sunday, 10 April 2016

Album Review: Masta Artisan - Starving Artist, Hungry Emcee



A phrase that I’ve seen thrown around when it comes to the very idea of media criticism is “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, criticize.” Now, while I can kind of understand what would lead someone to such a conclusion, the fact that a large number of the critics that I’ll be covering for this month (and have indeed already covered) do work in the fields that they riff on on a regular basis would hopefully put the brakes on that ultimately narrow-minded line of reasoning. Hell, if nothing else, I still hope that all of this has led some more people to check out Brad Jones’ Freak Out for proof positive that these guys aren’t all talk. But what about when it comes to something like music, for instance? Can someone who makes a living out of putting poppy rap to task for their lyrics be able to hold his own in the same department? Time to find out as we delve into my first ever music review of Starving Artist, Hungry Emcee by Masta Artisan, better known online as the Rap Critic. Oh, and apologies in advance for the track-by-track breakdown approach as I try and find my sea legs with this new-ish format.

The album kicks off with the title track, with very bass-heavy drums and this wavering wall of synths providing the backdrop for the traditional “I am awesome” opener. His flow is nice and smooth and his lyrics, while not exactly the most ear-grabbing, give a decent introduction to the man’s style. Would’ve liked more than a single verse in-between two iterations of the inordinately long chorus, but still. 2.5/5 … yeah, I usually hate number ratings as a general rule, but since I’m looking at the Rap Critic, I figure it’d be nice to see how his own songs fit up to his scale.

The next track, My Ambitions, opens on some pretty shallow drums and a basic reverberating bass hit, but this is where the lyrics start to really come through. The song details, well, Masta’s ambitions as an artist and, in a move that shows how much he really wants to make his own sound, he stays humble and down-to-earth with what he wants to accomplish like putting his mother in a nice house and teaching his audience that they have a place in the world. Yeah, seems a little weighty there, and his stripped-down approach here really helps the song. 3/5

Then in comes Save The Day and good God, the horns on this thing! It’s not even the fact that I have a bit of a soft spot for a good horn loop; it’s the fact that these horns actually sound good. Seriously, even with some of the more well-known MCs like Pusha T, that plastic trumpet effect just grates on my nerves. Fitting for a soundscape so triumphant, Masta paints himself as this musical superhero whose only weakness is a recording deal contract. Okay, admittedly it gets a little corny when it gets to the third verse concerning said contract, but his relatively nimble flow and crisp choice of words (“Killin’ this villainous opposition with the strength of a superhero”) make for a nice bit of bombast… even if the synth work starts to creep into Odd Future territory near the end. 3/5

After the subdued and spacey production we’ve heard so far, the funky, almost live band feel of Do My Dang Thang feels a bit out of left field. Then again, the horn blasts and too-cool-for-the-room guitar sound so good that it’s welcomed all the same. The lyrics are a little on the weak side, not helped by his flow that can feel like he’s stumbling over himself at times, but this is ultimately a party track and it’s something you could conceivably dance to. Hell, I’d even join in on the weird call and response bit at the end if this was playing somewhere outside of my iPod. Another 3/5

With the party atmosphere gone, in comes Sellout! to seriously bring the mood down. The song plays out as Masta reminiscing about a friend who used to be cool with him, but has since sold out to get big. This sentiment is ingrained in a lot of the more underground hip-hop out there and, quite frankly, it was old the first time I wound up hearing and it hasn’t aged well since. While the glitchier production and the boom bap drums are nice and show some definite variety in Masta’s production, the content is pretty lacking. Although, I do love the line about them being down like Joanie Loves Chachi’s ratings. 2/5

After a musical skit in the form of The Commercial, which even as a self-aware gag isn’t all that funny or even necessary, we come to L-Literation. While the beat isn’t too compelling, utilizing a bare piano loop and some of the most stock drums of the whole album, what makes this track work overall is the well-handled gimmick of the lyrics. Masta’s flow, combined with the typhoon of alliterative lyrics, wins out overall. 3.5/5

Now, I Gotta Show Ya shows the first use of record scratching on the album and… in all honesty, I can see this is the only time he ends up doing it. As for the content, it’s a story depicting a rap battle between Masta and a lesser MC, which is done with Masta portraying and rapping as both personas. Writing and delivering an intentionally bad verse is a tricky feat to pull off: You could either end up on the dumb but fun side of The Lonely Island or in the cringe-worthy “too accurately bad to even be funny” realm of Party Fun Action Committee. This is unfortunately more with the latter, as the verse from his opponent is definitely wack, but does not good music make even with that in mind. Sure, Masta’s response verse is good, but that verse’s existence even for satire holds the song back. 2/5

Then it’s time for the requisite love song Move On…, which has this nice 80’s R&B atmosphere to it with some very spacious synths. The song deals with the narrator dealing with unrequited love, which leads to two pretty good verses about trying to cope with that feeling of heartache. Then the third verse comes in and, with it depicting said unrequited love coming back to him after he becomes famous, starts to echo some gold digger sentiments that, quite frankly, I listen to albums like this to try and avoid. 2/5

City Of Broken Dreams, the final song on the album, is probably the best note he could have left on for what is essentially a compilation of Masta Artisan’s versatility. This is just a sheer atmospheric track, both in regards to the earthy kicks, city samples and hiding-behind-the-curtain organ that make up the beat and Masta’s raps depicting the titular city. It feels like a throwback to 90’s East Coast hip-hop, until the final minute kicks in with Masta declaring “We gotta break free”, leading up to some bleepy synths and… an acoustic guitar solo. And yet, all of these disparate sounds actually mesh well together, leaving the listener on a solid note. 3.5/5

All in all, I’d give it a 3/5. It serves as a good sampling of the man’s work, both his more homespun approach to lyricism and his versatility in terms of beats, but it ultimately just feels like a mixtape without too much cohesion to it. Now, he would go on to make albums that would be a lot more focused, but we’ll save those for another time. In the meantime, though, I figure we should get into the man’s work as a critic, so join me next time for another list. Thank God, I can get back in my comfort zone.

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