People know 9th Wonder can make beats: The Durham producer has cuts with Jay-Z, Destiny's Child, De La Soul, Sean Price, Lloyd Banks and Erykah Badu. And, at this point, he's worked well over a full album's length with single artists or groups: See Little Brother's The Minstrel Show, Murs' Murs 3:16 and Murray's Revenge, or Jean Grae's still-unreleased Jeanius.
But the producer-based album is different. Oftentimes, these affairs—when a producer calls on all of his friends to drop verses or hooks on a dozen beats he's been saving—sound like the beatmaster in question has combed through his hard drive and handed his hard work to a handful of grandstanders who couldn't ride a beat if it came equipped with training wheels and auto-pilot. The producer has to differentiate between friends and artists, between rappers who are OK rhymers and those who can make real standout tracks.
9th's most recent release, The Dream Merchant 2, finds the producer largely keeping the hacks to a minimum. His most provocative challenge here rests on whether he's obsessively particular in choosing the emcees he works with or if he's the coach who keeps everybody who comes to try-outs a place on his roster. There's a little of both on The Dream Merchant 2: One of 9th's newest underlings, Rapsody, doesn't get her own track here, allowed instead to come out to play for several severely impressive 30-second verses. Perhaps he's just teasing us with what he knows he has for the future (after all, 9th has another LP, The Wonder Years, due in January on Asylum Records).
Or maybe this is the coach mentality, and he's trying to avoid distracting from the disc's big-time marquee female player, Jean Grae. Alongside fellow Brooklynites Mos Def and Memphis Bleek, Grae praises her hometown with "Brooklyn in My Mind (Crooklyn Dodgers III)." Following the trail of DJ Premier's 1995 "Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers," 9th's BK tribute comes complete with what sounds like a basement horn section and stodgy, programmed bass kicks. Memphis Bleek actually sounds like he's having fun again with the music. He doesn't even sound out of place next to the album's more lyrically driven emcees.
Totaling 16 tracks, Dream Merchant 2 certainly has its share of missteps, mostly on cuts with lyrics so glib you wonder why they weren't omitted. Not even 9th can salvage two forgettable verses of thug cliché from Durham native and Hall of Justus newcomer Jozeemo, who surprisingly flounders all over "It Ain't Over." Here, Jozeemo sounds indistinguishable from any other emcee's hard-body shtick.
9th's drums and samples do save face on "Saved," where New York's Saigon crudely lambastes, "How the black woman the number one catcher of AIDS/ when we all know that bullshit spreaded from gays" out of the blue. The song could have trudged into another one of Saigon's reckless soapboxes, but smartly, the mic soon passes to North Carolina's Joe Scudda, who drops the vitriol with a sentimental lesson taken from his mom and pop's mistakes.
Like Scudda, the usual Justus League suspects manage to stand out as a group amid this powerful guest list, and that's ultimately what makes Dream Merchant 2 more than another mixtape that sounds only all right. On "Merchants of Dreams," Chaundon's perfected, cocky snarl complements the villainous lament of L.E.G.A.C.Y. The track's other voices—Brooklyn's Skyzoo and Torae—leave something to be desired. That's the exception rather than the rule on Dream Merchant 2, a record that delivers mostly what it means to: 9th's unflinching soul-sample and snare approach, and—for better and worse—a wide net of supporting players.