Album Review by Stylus Magazine’s Tal Rosenberg
It’s strange to look at underground hip-hop today without carrying a sliver of sorrow, or at least a slight sense of confusion as to how something that at one point seemed so vital and refreshing to a sixteen-year-old kid has now become one of the epicenters of banality and naïveté. Today, underground hip-hop is mostly comprised of what many casually refer to as “backpackers,” an allusion to the physical makeup of the genre’s fan base—namely, hippies and hip-hop heads with baggy t-shirts and the prerequisite backpack hanging off of skinny frames like anemic hunchbacks. And that was what it looked like then, but it was also at that moment, the turn of the millennium, that Detroit duo Binary Star released Masters of the Universe, that things didn’t seem so silly, and it felt like…here was something that was vital, something that could be taken seriously.
The closing of the ‘90s was a pathetic time for music, and rap was no exception. Say what you will about how “bling” and Southern rap are legitimate genres, that all may be true. But that’s also far and away from what was being released at the time. If memory serves correctly, there were three, possibly four, styles of rap or hip-hop that were on commercial radio: the ‘80s pop-riffing of Puff Daddy, the cold, aggressive Swizz Beatz-laced Ruff Ryders camp, the No Limit empire, and, if it even counts, rap-metal. With the exception of two albums, Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death and Ma$e’s Harlem World, practically every single album lumped into these categories were half-assed, rushed records that started most of the trends that people despise about present-day rap.
On top of that, it followed what is without question the greatest period in rap music’s history, the early to mid-‘90s, when rap on all coasts was becoming more intelligent, thoughtful, cinematic, conceptual, and brilliant. Due to the sharp decline in quality from one era to the next, it’s apparent as to why so many people, and not just urban teenagers and college stoners, were turning to neo-Native Tongues and sample-based conscious rap as a healthy alternative. Rap had become so banal, repetitive, and unintelligible that it was time for something radically different.
But the second generation of independent hip-hop wasn’t up to snuff. In the beginning, there were some landmark releases, albums like Dr. Octagonecologyst and Funcrusher Plus (the most noteworthy of the bunch). The generation was epitomized by Rawkus Records, which, in the beginning, churned out some intelligent, consistent, and satisfying records. The peak of this brief creative outpouring arrived in Rawkus’ celebrated Soundbombing II, the agglomeration of practically every artist that was affiliated with underground hip-hop delivering what are arguably some of their finest performances, resulting in what is perhaps still the greatest rap mixtape ever made.
Yet, it also marked the point where underground hip-hop began sinking into an abyss of sophomoric, obvious old-school ribbing, and it incidentally coincided with Southern rap’s breakthrough, as embodied by Miss E…So Addictive, Stankonia, and Cash Money Records. Rather than follow suit with some of that same vigor, most of the underground’s mainstays relinquished themselves to cringe-worthy career moves. Common became a boho circus clown, The Roots got way too into themselves, and Mos Def, well, you saw 16 Blocks, right? And Rawkus Records did the inevitable and sold out to a major.
Around the time all this was happening, I was a Senior in high school, and it was the autumn of 2000, right around the time that hip-hop was the biggest thing in my life—next to getting into college. As soon as school would get out on Tuesdays, everyone would go to Tower or Best Buy and try to unearth an unheard rap classic, as if by doing so it would unlock Scrooge McDuck’s vault and you could go swimming in a pool of dubloons. On a particular Tuesday, rather than buy the new live Roots CD or whatever other balderdash I though was the tits back then, I opted for the most obscure, lo-tech CD that was sitting on the rack. On that day I discovered Binary Star.
Masters of the Universe is a significant and personal album in my life, mostly for the reason that it really feels like it’s mine. I had discovered it when practically nobody had heard of them, and I turned on a bunch of people to it, some of who would still say that it’s one of the best hip-hop records ever made. But Masters of the Universe, like Soundbombing II, also marks a crucial turning point in underground hip-hop—as its epitaph—the last “true” hip-hop album, at least before Def Jux, MF Doom, and Edan came along and took it to the next level. Masters of the Universe is the last album that feels part of that movement.
Masters of the Universe sounds like it could have come from the mid-‘90s, though—rather than aping the music that was created during the renaissance and then watering it down. The beats that make up the seventeen tracks on the album sound like vintage RZA or anything off of Illmatic—jazz-based loops and dusty drums that give off the back-in-the-day feel and a cinematic scope. Masters of the Universe is tied together by snippets taken from movies—borrowing from cop flicks, Russian crime films, and blaxploitation. In that regard, it plays out much like an homage to those records, a testament to an age that birthed some of the best music ever created.
That’s also what gives Masters of the Universe its edge: its acknowledgment of the end of an era. There is an air of sadness lingering over every song, whether it be from the musical backdrop or the lyrics. One Man Army (now One.Be.Lo) and Senim Silla, the outfit’s two MC’s, put out Masters of the Universe with every dime they had, and roughly half of the songs (originally released in 1999 as Waterworld) were done in one take because of their shoestring budget. Binary Star knew that the album was going to be their first and last, with Silla leaving for unknown reasons and One Man Army off to pursue a solo career. As a result, even when they’re rapping about crushing MC’s and writing good time party jams, it’s as if they both know that this is the end, and that sentiment soaks Masters of the Universe all the way to the root.
All of the aforementioned qualities are embodied in the album’s opening track, the stellar “Reality Check.” Entering with foreboding strings and a building, ominous piano loop, Binary Star keep it suspenseful, lacing it over a steady, cracking drumbeat. At the same time, it doesn’t sound like anything special, a standard hip-hop beat used in a million other rap songs. Then they pull an astounding 180, lifting the sample and letting the drums ride for about ten seconds, then suddenly dropping a gorgeous, celestial beat straight from the depths of the soul—shimmering harps doing ballet over sparkling pianos, cinematic strings and a breathy soul singer fragment that melts cold hearts into crimson pools. It accompanies One Man Army unleashing a torrent of sharp similes (“keep it rollin’ like paraplegics”), punchlines (“Rodney King ain’t ever felt a beat like this,” “I’m bad to the bone but X-ray’s can’t even see this”), testaments (“my number one policy is quality, never sell my soul is my philosophy”), boasts (“Who said it’s all about the benjamins? / I wanna fortune I wanna make music and hit the lottery / Fortunately my music is never watery”), and hip-hop preaching (“The fact that all these wack MCs is makin’ Gs don’t bother me”).
Binary Star – “Honest Expression”
By: Tal Rosenberg
Playing the Walnut Room November 21st w/ Whiskey Blanket & DJ LargeChild
Article as Seen on StylusMagazine.com