Durham producer 9th Wonder is raising a family of B-girls, soul singers and fearless emcees, a rhyme heckler who can't stop grinning and a production team called the Soul Council, full of up-and-coming beat-choppers out to achieve the notoriety of their label head. You have a man, then, leading a busy, noisy household of artists crammed into bedrooms of chance and opportunity. Some of them still sleep in bunk beds.
9th's Opus isn't the heavily anticipated, producer-driven LP The Wonder Years that's long been buzzed about. Rather, 9th shelved what was once anticipated as his actual opus—featuring an all-star cast of guest emcees—for raising his own stable of new artists, all of whom we glimpse on this compilation. Until now, the experiment has mostly resulted in a bunch of Internet videos, mini-documentaries, mixtapes and a recent, stellar album by North Carolina emcee Big Remo that's mostly been overlooked. Of any emcee who's had a track produced by 9th Wonder, no one—yes, including Jay-Z—adds texture to and tames a 9th Wonder beat with the velvety ease of Big Remo on a song like "It's Real." Remo's anxiety-less thug passion comes fueled by an almost passive desire to out-rap the trap-boys and B-boys. He eschews the fuck-the-world jadedness of other new emcees like Freddie Gibbs or Southern virtuoso Big K.R.I.T. Despite all of the media cheerleading, and despite his strong showing on his debut, Entrapment, Big Remo has yet to share his full story with the rest of us. For now, we can simply hope that 9th Wonder lets his beats serve as the biographer. Leaving his own verse (as the rapper, 9thmatic) off the original version of "It's Real"—included here—seems like he's at least making some smart executive decisions.
Another one of 9th's smart decisions was adding the Brooklyn emcee Skyzoo to his roster. On "Easy," Skyzoo trims his otherwise aggressive penmanship to fit 9th's scaled-down drum-kit workout. Rapping as GQ, former UNC point guard Quentin Thomas is the only real rival to Skyzoo's consummate writing. "Trouble Man" finds GQ's self-described "hookin' and twistin'" rhyme style in a state of willful mayhem. He avoids the undeservedly self-rewarding, pre/ post-punch line rap grunts of fellow, and lesser, IWW rappers Halo and Enigma and Sundown of Actual Proof here. It's time their teacher told them that you have to earn the line before you get the medal for it. The same could be said for Thee Tom Hardy's shenanigans, but somehow "I'm Grinnin"—and, really, everything this kid fools with—is too damn entertaining and determined for gripes.
With any family, there are, of course, unhappy circumstances, and 9th's crowd here is no different. On "I Will Always Be Down," Heather Victoria oddly tries to re-create Mary J. Blige's sound, though Blige is still a dominating R&B power. It seems forced and nostalgic, like revisiting material that's not even past its own prime. For now, 9th Wonder's real magnum opus remains the challenge of raising this hip-hop family on some beats and a dream—not this glorified mixtape.