L and Marley Marl. Cube and the Bomb Squad. Guru and Primo. CL Smooth and Pete Rock. And, of course, Snoop and Dre. Rare are such pairs that do whole albums together, and more exceptional are the ones that got headz shook. Chris Rock's recent observation that "only in rap do you get one-album wonders" can also be applied to the few successful duos in hip hop. Yet, looking at the top-shelf status of the aforementioned, it is a wonder that more rappers and producers have not been more active on the eHarmony circuit.
Aceyalone is just one of the many emcees who could benefit from such a long-term commitment. While widely hailed for his exemplary grassroots work with the Project Blowed community and his under-the-major-label-radar sneak-attack on his debut, All Balls Don't Bounce, Acey has always been in need of a consistently good beat. The combination of an explosive onstage personality and intensely cerebral writing has only landed him on the verge of success; he has the gusto to get the kids wavin' their hands, but too much of a beautiful mind to have them all jumpin' out of their pants.
On his second album, A Book of Human Language, he began a nice run whereupon producer Mumbles laced Ace with an entire album of abstractions that were perfect for his through-the-looking-glass explorations. Predictably though, the press went to town, pigeonholing him further as "that" rapper. Subsequently on his follow-up, Accepted Eclectic, he sought to break free and focus simply on styling over a panoply of beats. The approach worked... at least when rhymes and music gelled. He revisited the three-minute date idea on his most recent album, Love and Hate, but this time he found a versatile partner who could do him rough on the floor ("Lost Your Mind") or tenderly all night ("Moonlit Skies"). Lo and behold, Ace found a suitable mate—RJD2.
On paper, the match seems like a no-brainer. Acey brings the rawness, but also a thoughtful side which scratches more than bangs heads. RJD2 catches esoteric Josh Davis comparisons, but really seems content with getting the dead buzzing and breaking in their graves. Between the two, there should be a happy medium, regardless of direction.
Overwhelmingly, Magnificent City reflects the good times of their relationship. When RJ sticks to the bounce aesthetic and Acey keeps his writing lucid and/or topical, the record becomes the most listenable of the emcee's recent output. In this manner, "All For U" opens MC with strains of a "New York, New York"-type anthem, but uses an Alpertian Tijuana fanfare and an up-tempo break to set the geography straight and clear the way for Ace's stylish b-boying, "Shoes always rhyme, same color as my shirt is." "Fire" further fans the flames to the tune of poppy Cameo bass funk, but Ace makes clear that the album is still him doing him, "Lifestyle, freestyle / Just tryin' to get past that, though." Ever in touch with his roots, he big-ups the crew, throws up peace to the hometown, and begins to cruise with his new partner through the city's long lanes.
MC mostly compels with its consistent pairing of focused writing and responsive production. When Ace gets aggro with Panther rage, RJ reaches into his Since I Left You classic-rock/hip-hop sock for "Cornbread, Eddy, and Me." Similarly, RJ lights up the "High Life" when Acey laundry-lists the gifts of setting adrift on Buddah's bliss before the Rocky Raccoon-for-the-drunken-bar-yarn, "Solomon Jones." "Mooore" finds our emcee exploring the grossness of mass, matter, and more of it all, so RJ spills a slippery slick of whale fat. Not to be outshone by the number one DJ, RJ plugs slight organ flourishes and stuttering drums to keep the beats consistent with his love of dusty samples and modern drum programming. Such is the remarkable quality of MC; the two sacrifice little of their respective personalities for the sake of the record.
While this compatibility is comforting and pleasant enough, the record also loses steam in these moments. After all, any remarkable partnership both suffers and benefits most from a degree of tension. MC is no exception. When RJ goes for broke, Acey either sounds his best or his worst. On one end, "Disconnected" rolls through hollow '50s Blue Note-sounding snares and a "Sledgehammer" horn riff so that Ace can cut loose with the shit you love to hear. "This is dedicated to you, you worthless piece of shit," he seethes before getting the listener hyphey to hit rewind: "Yeah, Ace to the deuce, dough / What your deuce, though? / You so spacey / Acey; Day Uno." Hello! "Caged Bird" further ups the ante with some classic East Coast sounds: jinglin' bells and some Wu-Tang bass nonsense (why hadn't any of the Blizzowed guys thought to do this?). Feeling no pressure, Ace responds with a slew of quotables: "Step in the spot like I'm not that popular / Eyes like binoculars / I'm so hip-hopular"; "Been on the edge since Greg had a Macattack / Now they all Cracker Jack / That's a fact, smell me?"
Conversely, Acey sounds lost when buried in the middle of RJ's most scattershot production, such as on the middling "Here and Now" and "A Beautiful Mine." In the seeming attempt to reach out to their respective interests in abstraction and rockness, the two come up with confused tales of birth, realness, and other forgettable diatribes. Although the record is hardly long, especially by current standards, it could have benefited from being an EP of bangers instead of an LP that needs to build steam. That said, MC inspires few such fast-forwards and a surprising number of repeats.
Admittedly, the prospects of an Aceyalone-RJD2 record hardly seem epic. Both made their marks in their respective times and fields, but neither have moved the entire hip-hop nation. As RJD2 himself says in the album's press sheet, "To me, Acey and his crew were like the West Coast Organized Konfusion..." Yes, Organized Konfusion. Not Zulu Nation. Not the Juice Crew. And certainly not Organized Noize. Instead, the pair conjures comparable feelings to Kweli and Hi-Tek or Nas and Salaam Remi; perhaps a groundbreaking loop like on "Fortified Live," or some bananas madness like on "Made You Look." But classic status? They are a pair destined for goodness, not greatness. Let's keep the reigns on that word lest we start handing out Five Mics to any Tom, Dick, or Kim on the blo... oh, wait.
Reviewed by: Dan Nishimoto
Reviewed on: 2006-02-06