Regarded as one of the finer (and only) hip-hop crews in North Carolina to be built around live instruments, The Urban Sophisticates was once easy to reduce into an organic party band—as I did seven months ago in the Independent—and call it a day. On Classic Material, however, the Greensboro group stretches its boundaries, working with Dutch producer Nicolay (of The Foreign Exchange), broadening its sonic palette in general, and upping the braggadocio of its rhymes.
After an obligatory spaced-out intro, Classic Material kicks open with a trio of surefire party anthems: "Head Nod Hood Rock" pits a pair of recurring trumpet and guitar riffs with a Dead Prez-lite beat. "Ready, Set, Go" is a Roots-style jam with tense, palm-muted guitar, more horns and plenty of swagger. Lead single "First of the Drinks" is almost entirely devoid of the band's usual instruments, bouncing instead along a skeletal beat built upon a snare snap. The lonesome trumpet accent is a terrific touch.
Though the move toward more traditional production bridges the Sophisticates back across the gap toward mainstream hip-hop, there's still plenty of variety on Classic Material. Gospel influences, for instance, shine through on the aptly named "Higher," which exits through a marching band coda of drums and horns. An extended, jazzy segment introduces "Dance With Me" with upright bass and brushed snare, though Aaron James' soulful vocals eventually lead the way into brassy Latin territory more fitting of the song's title. "You'd Stay" takes a smooth ride along a simple snare-n-bass beat, as moody keys and a distant trumpet wrap beneath a female vocal hook. It's the five-piece band's first heavy exploration of electronic beats, and—thanks largely to Nicolay—it works.
The Urban Sophisticates has been around long enough to build a solid identity as a live hip-hop act. On Classic Material, though, the quintet branches out while thankfully maintaining its own identity.
The Urban Sophisticates plays an album release party at Cat's Cradle Saturday, Oct. 4, with O Period at 9 p.m. Urban also plays a 1 p.m. set at the Jordan Lake Arts & Music Festival that afternoon.