1st Infantry (Deluxe CD/DVD Edition) / The Chemistry Files
B- / B-
espite Scott Storch's collection of chart-topping singles and Eminem's epic pretensions, The Alchemist is easily the best white producer in mainstream hip-hop. Coming up in the 90's under the wing of Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs, and then becoming a favorite of New York street rap vets like Nas and The Lox, The Alchemist is a humble student of the school of crate-digging sample fiends. And though his profile may never reach the heights of, say, DJ Premier or Just Blaze, he's one of the few producers today who can move fluidly between backpacker crews like Dilated Peoples and gangsta rappers like Mobb Deep.
The Alchemist released his first solo album, 1st Infantry, in 2004, to showcase a few verses of his own rhymes, a lot of his own beats, and a whole lot of his famous friends. As far as producer-helmed hip-hop compilations go, it was slightly above average, bolstered by the diversity of his clientele (D-Block, Devin the Dude, B-Real). The album yielded a minor radio hit in "Hold You Down" featuring Prodigy, Nina Sky, Illa Ghee, featuring a sample that Just Blaze flipped better (and years earlier) on Jay-Z's "Soon You'll Understand."
Now, two years later, The Alchemist and Koch Records have decided to reissue 1st Infantry in a "deluxe edition," which apparently means that they’ve added a bonus DVD and changed the color scheme of the album cover. Given that the DVD appears to have been filmed largely during the recording of the album, it seems like it was merely finished behind schedule and was unable to originally be packaged with the disc. Otherwise, there's no apparent reason for this new version. The DVD itself runs less than a half hour, features a handful of Alchemist's collaborators hanging out and recording, and about as much marijuana as you'd expect from a former Cypress Hill protégé.
Reevaluating a hip-hop album only two years after its release, particularly one that didn't make a large impact in the first place, is an odd mission given how quickly the market changes. There's all sorts of moments that seem funny in retrospect, like "Dead Bodies," which features The Game when he was still signed to G-Unit, and Prodigy before Mobb Deep were signed to G-Unit. And, hey, remember when Nina Sky was famous?
Leaving aside the nagging question of why to reissue it in the first place, the album has held up surprisingly well. "Tick Tock" with Nas and Prodigy reminds us how much better it was before Mobb Deep recycled the beat on their recent album with 50 Cent and Mary J. Blige. The two detours into the South, with T.I. and Devin the Dude respectively, are worth the trip, even if the beats stay within Alc's East Coast comfort zone. On "Bang Out," B-Real rhymes over a ridiculous Doobie Brothers sample. Even the token R&B track, Chinky's "Strength of Pain," is a gorgeous slow jam with bombastic 80's drums. The production is generally nothing dazzling or unique, but that's clearly not what The Alchemist was ever going for. All he wants to do is find an obscure loop and make your head nod with it.
Although The Alchemist has a proper follow-up to 1st Infantry on the way, in the meantime he's released a mixtape of his outside productions, The Chemistry Files, on his own label, ALC Records. The mix focuses on Alc's recent work, so his indisputable classics, like Jadakiss's "We Gonna Make It" or Prodigy's "Keep It Thoro," are absent. There are a few hits, though, including Mobb Deep and 50 Cent's "The Infamous," and Cam'ron's "Wet Wipes," probably one of the most rhymed over beats on mixtapes this year. And a few nice recent deep cuts, like "G-Type" from Scarface's album with his group The Product, are resurrected for further examination on The Chemistry Files. For the most part, though, the mixtape is full of solid tracks by AZ, Obie Trice, and Tony Yayo that aren't available on the rappers' most recent albums.
One slightly surprising development on The Chemistry Files is Alchemist's growing confidence as a rapper. On 1st Infantry, he only rhymed on a couple tracks, hiding his verses between those of his guests. But on the mixtape, he steps up his flow on three solo tracks, the best of which is disc opener "Reppin' ALC." Odds are he's never going to be driven enough about rapping that he'll put that career first, but as long as he keeps making your head nod The Alchemist won't have to worry about his day job.
Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2006-09-01