Artist: Apollo Brown & Guilty Simpson
Album: Dice Game
Label: Mello Music Group
Release Date: 11/13/12
Not wasting any time with campy skits or frilly hooks, Dice Game offers up the kind of thoughtful, raw, enlightened album that true hip-hop consumers yearn for. Record player crackle can be heard throughout Dice Game, reminding us that Apollo Brown has not abandoned his affection for gritty, soulful nostalgia. Combined with lean, hard-hitting beats and Guilty Simpson’s confident and often solemn lyrics, this Motor City duo will undoubtedly receive the underground recognition it deserves but not much in the way of commercial success.
Albums like Trophies (Apollo Brown & OC) and OJ Simpson (Madlib & Guilty Simpson) garnered praise for both Apollo and Guilty, and here we see them come together successfully. Apollo’s production is so powerful, though, that it tends to overpower Guilty at times. This is not to say that Guilty’s vocals aren’t strong (“I heard you rappers don’t like me but I bet a grand won’t fight me / I might blackout, pull a mack out, clap out, and swiss cheese your little trap out”), it’s just sometimes feels more like a tug of war than a collaboration. So inspired and thought-provoking is the production, it feels like I have to choose between the music and the rhymes, especially on “Wrong Hand” and “Nasty,” which are some of Brown’s best. It’s also just loud and cacophonous at times, causing the vocal on the hook to get lost slightly, which may or may not be intentional.
That said, having these two come together is impressive and full of the type of creative angst we see come out of Detroit. The album kicks off with “Reputation”, a nod to the city where Guilty spits “I’m from where you gotta earn as far as the block’s concerned, the rubber they burn in Cadillac whips / Been through more shit than catfish, home of the amazon big body black chicks.” “The Cook Up” is another street banger and arguably one of the best cuts on the album. Brown, who came up with Bronze Nazareth, is clearly Wu-inspired on tracks like “Let’s Play” (an effortlessly sexy joint about getting busy), “Potatoes” (featuring Torae), and “I Can Do No Wrong,” which has a mellow feel with deliberate and wise rhymes like “Experience speaks volumes to those that try hearin’ it / Chill and burn something, you might learn somethin”. Wisdom seems to be a recurring theme, as displayed on “Neverending Story” and “Lose You” (“We don’t deal in deception / We share truth through reflection”), a strong track where Guilty spits extra lean verses on top of a beautiful piano instrumental and deep, moving choir vocals. Another common theme – change – is explored on “Truth Be Told”, “How Will I Go”, “Change”, and “Dear Jane”, with the latter two specifically addressing struggles with addiction.
It’s refreshing and impressive that Brown and Simpson carefully chose only two MCs to feature briefly on the album, neither of which is very well known in the mainstream, further crediting their dedication to the art of hip-hop over the pursuit of fame and fortune. Apollo fans first heard the instrumental for “Potatoes” in 2011, but Simpson and Brooklyn-bred Torae add new elements that tighten this track up perfectly. “Nasty” features another welcome appearance, this time from underground mastermind Planet Asia. Again, this beat might be the album’s best, but it does overpower the lyricists at time, which is unfortunate for obvious reasons. It’s worth a careful listen, though, because PA delivers as usual.
Presence of the tambourine, flute, organ, violin, cello, piano, and throwback samples like the Temptations’ “Let Your Hair Down” indicate this album is as underground as they come. They just don’t make ‘em like this much anymore, because most of today’s artists follow a very specific and disappointing formula that is a complete departure from what hip-hop used to be – music for and from the heart of the street. After a hiatus a few years ago, Apollo decided to rededicate himself to producing music, and aspired to become a household name in the realm of hip-hop. I’m not sure if that dream will come true, but teaming up with Simpson, who “wants to make the consumer care about the music again,” is definitely a win for them as well as us.