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Qwel - If It Aint Been In a Pawnshop, It Can't Play the Blues

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Artist: Qwel

Album: If It Aint Been In a Pawnshop, It Can't Play the Blues

Label: Galapagos4

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

“Imperfection starts with I.” (– Qwel, “underachiever”)

The quote speaks to a lesson we could all stand to learn, and one that Chicago’s Qwel holds close to heart over the course of If It Ain’t Been in a Pawnshop’s 66 minutes of mind-splittingly introspective music. Qwel’s previous work on the Typical Cats debut album was highly acclaimed in the underground hip-hop community, and especially among fans of the Galapogos4 collective. Particularly impressive on that album was Quel’s “Manhattan Project,” an opus of a journey through a graffiti artist’s head anchored by references to spray paint colors. On If it Ain’t Been in a Pawnshop, Qwel returns to that theme on the second verse of “Brick Walls,” in a presumably imagined dialogue with a father figure about the merits of rap music and graf writing. However, If it Ain’t Been in a Pawnshop is much more than a mere reprise of themes. Qwel takes both himself and hip-hop to new planes with songs like “$19.99 A.D.” (produced by DJ White Lightning), which espouses an unabashedly unpopular stance on abortion. The beautiful Meaty Ogre track “The Highest Commitment” is another gem, with its anthropomorphization of weed in the form of a lover. The album’s best moment comes on the title track however, in which Qwel’s “dreams of seeing Jesus at the Wilson stop” drags the listener through a post-sacred quest for religion and self-knowledge.

That’s the good, now for the bad. Some may not enjoy the laid-back, funky, bluesy vibe that Meaty Ogre and White Lightning give to the production, especially following the more upbeat Typical Cats album. There are moments where the choices in the mixing are rather bewildering (i.e., “Stress.com”), in which the vocals are too low or the levels just off. The two guest spots by Robust, an up-and-coming emcee with a solid solo album to his name, are (surprisingly) forgettable and make one wish Qwel had instead invited Offwhyte or one of the other Galapogos4 emcees to join him on the album. All that said, If it Ain’t Been in a Pawnshop is a fine album indeed. Qwel displays a level of poetry in his writing that is a pleasure to listen to. The album works together as a cohesive in its tone and outlook, without bothering with cumbersome themes or concepts that would try to artificially achieve the same effect. While these issues prevent this album from being a classic on a level with the greats of the hip-hop canon, it far outstrips any expectations anyone could have reasonably held for Qwel’s solo debut.

By Daniel Thomas-Glass

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