Over the last four years, the ascension of North Carolina's Justus League during this decade's first half collapsed into a mess of infighting and mediocre records. Now, though, Hall of Justus (H.O.J.)—a close relative of a slightly different name—is working to make a national name of its own. Aside from a few key personnel shifts, the biggest difference is that the sound associated with the H.O.J. brand (outside of Little Brother) is felonious and gritty, whereas the much-respected Justus League often struck a heartwarming, familial chord. Those big record deals didn't work out, and now most of the Justus men seem bitter and out for blood.
It's still a familial clique, though, as evidenced by the none-too-heartwarming mixtape Reservoir Dogs, named, of course, after Quentin Tarantino's 1992 bloodbath. Triangle admirals Jozeemo, Joe Scudda, Chaundon and Little Brother's Rapper Big Pooh join in the mixtape spirit, jacking several well-known beats with mean rhymes. Even if the four emcees turned in flawless efforts that did the beats justice, many of the group's punch lines and parlances would seem parochial by nature, because they're riding atop secondhand goods. Only Chaundon overcomes here: His charismatic penchant for turning callous bombast into show-stopping lines allows him to delight with the snatched Souls of Mischief track "Til' Infinity" (originally titled "93 til Infinity"). In one turn, Chaundon makes fun of Kanye West's tight pants before playfully swiping Kanye's hooking, twang-on-every-fourth vocal style, turning in one of the mixtape's most inventive, energetic and best verses.
Elsewhere, the rhymes are simply mean. According to this H.O.J. gospel, Jozeemo might "shoot you in your soul" and have you "leaking life." Joe Scudda will never, ever buy a bottle at the bar because he'll drink one before he gets there. Rapper Big Pooh, the fella who's always seemed so jocular in Little Brother, keeps his name mostly clear, letting the thug-particulars surrounding him do the dirty work. He seems to provide an ethos for Hall of Justus during "Man Up," though: "Welcome to the South/ where us country niggas don't play." At least his boys seem to believe him...
Reservoir Dogs, then, is a bit a of a missed opportunity, an interesting idea—four capable rappers getting mean and turning a movie into a mixtape—that seems aborted too early. It's just not enough to name your mixtape after a Tarantino classic and have your emcee ensemble dress up like the characters from the movie for the record cover. Why not chase the concept and offer more than the expected trifling raps over some avalanching beats? But these guys aren't Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, and—at least here—they seem short on the vision such a plan requires. That's too bad, since Chaundon is clearly capable of more. On Carnage, his solo LP, the brawny Bronx native proved he was more than a silly punch-line rapper, as he is generally typecast, on one of that album's best moments, "Gone." He and storyboard queen Jean Grae play squabbling lovers who eventually end up shooting each other. But are his associates capable of anything so overarching, narrative and planned? These cloned, self-congratulatory and venting marathons suggest that they're, at best, not interested in finding out. Well, at least Reservoir Dogs accomplishes something profound: There might not be a better symbol of the largely effete state of Triangle hip-hop at the moment.