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Lateef & The Chief - Maroons: Ambush

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Artist: Lateef & The Chief

Album: Maroons: Ambush

Label: Quannum Projects

Review date: Jan. 19, 2005

Blackalicious, DJ Shadow, and Latyrx have cemented Quannum as a major force in the underground. Many of the label’s offerings have become certifiable hip-hop classics, all without help from mainstream media outlets. Bridging the gap between college-age kids looking for danceable, user-friendly music like Jurassic 5, and hard-core rap fans weaned on the likes of Dead Prez and the Coup, Quannum walks a razor thin line between commerciality and credibility. The latest tightrope, a collaboration between Blackalicious’ production guru Chief Xcel and Latryx mouth Lateef the Truth Speaker called Maroons: Ambush continues the trend to mostly satisfying, if somewhat predictable results.

The production work is aces; the Chief‘s deft turntable, editing and arrangement work is nicely augmented by the feisty funk of several session guns. Miles beyond most non-mainstream releases, Ambush nevertheless sounds too clean in spots – a sunny Californian studio gloss smothers the tracks in a sugar glaze that saps some of the power from Lateef’s politically-themed rhymes.

Lyrically, Lateef is in fine form, but his sing-song vocal workouts sometimes sound a bit goofy. He’s a profound verbal acrobat, however, dropping tight protest raps without resorting to unproductive anger and blasé generalizations. For every comment about governmental abuses of power, there’s an admonition to each of us to hold ourselves to higher standards.

The track “If” ruminates on the follies of human nature, particularly people’s susceptibility to greed. The cut’s relentless bounce is a study in elegant pugnacity – the perfect backdrop for Lateef’s observations on the politics of acquisition. What sets him apart from other socially conscious MCs is that he offers alternatives to ignorance and avarice, encouraging listeners to employ personal responsibility in direct challenge to our leaders’ deliberate unaccountability. Sadly, his message should be self-evident.

It’s hard to doubt the duo’s integrity, but the populist vibe sometimes gets a bit cloying. How many amber necklace wearing secondary students pay anything more than lip-service to progressive politics? Ambush will sound great in the SUV no matter what the content, and Maroons’ non-confrontational approach makes them less relevant than uncompromising attack dogs such as Immortal Technique. It’s all fine and good to “stay positive,” but if you’re on a mission to wake folks up, it takes more than cuddly grooves and good advice.

The romantically-themed “Beautiful You” temporarily eschews the social agenda. A paean to sharing one’s self-realizations (and perhaps a little weed) with your best bitty, the track’s klezmer-tinged string arrangements snake around the bottom-heavy beat like trails of purple smoke. Taken in context with the rest of the record, it’s a bit like holding hands during Poli-Sci class.

With more talent to spare than the majority of their closest competition, it’s disappointing that Maroons: Ambush don’t take it just a little further. Crafted to appeal to a wide range of hip-hop consumers, Ambush might leave more of an impression if it put a little more weight behind its well-mannered thump.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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