Is this a compilation project or a compost pile? That question looms the largest on Jamla Is the Squad, the latest 25-track trek from the Triangle-based, 9th Wonder-helmed hip-hop label Jamla Records. For years, Jamla has built an image that most startup businesses would envy—the brainchild of a Harvard fellow, a Grammy winner, a guy whose simple, soulful beats stunned the moneymen of hip-hop, Jay Z included.
Still, they've yet to produce a major record or star, and the boasting seems more associated with branding than actual music. When the label began several years ago, the new school of Triangle hip-hop acts—Wreck-N-Crew, Toon & The Real Laww, WNDRKND—watched in awe. But now, none of those hard-edged emcees want anything to do with Jamla's blasé, fatigued boom-bap sound. So, how can Jamla—whose flagship artist, Rapsody, is a pleasant-enough personality but middling emcee at best—stay in power? With two-dozen songs on this often-exhausting mixtape, excess and willpower seem to be the only answers.
But some some recent additions to the Jamla ranks provide an alternate route: Only four months ago, Jamla recruited Chicago emcee Add-2 to its roster, quickly unveiling its newest member through his label debut, Between Heaven and Hell. Instantly, he became the Al Capone to 9th Wonder's master plan, a hot-headed rapper making his boss look young and hard. Add-2 repeats that recent history on Squad, borrowing some of Jay Z's Reasonable Doubt rhyme styles for "Bomber and A Fly Chick." "You know I be killin'/beginning and ending/beginnin' to feel like it's infinite," he goes, winding through hyperactive tongue twisters. "Rippin' this rappin' like it was a ribbon that's over some wrapping/It's Christmas, nigga." It reads much like basic, '90s flow, but the words ping-pong off producer Khrysis' thumping drums and chord flickers. Khrysis produced Between Heaven and Hell, too; their continued chemistry is the main event here.
In most places, yes, the rapping is good enough, but it's not always eventful—it's amateurs or upstarts, searching for their style and substance. But it's not fair to hold up some of the more unequipped emcees here (TP, Halo, Joey Fatts) to the same standards as veteran marksmen Talib Kweli, Elzhi and Phonte, pros who combine for "No Competition." It's another fancy, soul knocker crafted by Khrysis and consecrated by the triumvirate. Kweli teaches, Elzhi poisons and, ultimately, Phonte charms: "I'm Langston meets Slang Ton/Don't need a track for that bottom-feeder rap/You niggas is plankton/A AK to a paint gun/Competition, nigga, it ain't none."
Indeed, most of the rapping competition on Jamla Is The Squad is futile if extant at all. Good thing it's not all rap: On the Dionne Warwick-inspired "Walk On By," Jamla's R&B serving, Heather Victoria, adds the song behind rapper GQ's stories of three unlucky bystanders. It's a striking departure from his usual free-associative style (which is excellent, by the way, and deserves the chance to be tested by the likes of Elzhi), pushing the song into experimental realms that Jamla often avoids. The Kash-produced "Drive Home" lets us into Victoria's moments of infidelity and intimacy, where she's left wondering if she should pick up her keys and go. It's simple, but the conflict in her voice reveals more complexity than all of this record's raps put together.
Composting is the first step in preparing a plentiful garden. 9th Wonder just needs to decide how much shit he wants to keep mixed in.
Label: Jamla Records
This article appeared in print with the headline "Piling Squad."