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V/A - Definitive Jux Presents II

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Artist: V/A

Album: Definitive Jux Presents II

Label: Def Jux

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

Take this album for what it is: a compilation from one of the better underground hip hop labels in the biz these days. What it isn’t: an album that has more than a passing interest in cohesiveness. Similarities: Tommy Boy Black Label 2000, Hip Hop 101. A sound not quite the same but perhaps thinking in a similar box. Spotlights on up-and-coming emcees like Camu Tao and Masai Bei next to more “established” names like Vast Aire and Aesop Rock will lead to incorrect comparisons to the Soundbombing series that made Rawkus money. There’s more and less here, though.

People like to use the word “grimy” to describe El-P’s production—“dirty,” “gritty,” visions of 36 Chambers-era RZA. All true, whatever your picture of grit. El-P behind the boards sounds like nightmares of post-industrial capitalism, Mad Max to a beat, Apocalypse Now in the urban jungle. This is the sound of Def Jux Presents II, the sound of El-P. Take this album backwards: “Stepfather Factory,” the only El-P solo cut, screams sardonic and oozes the slime of CEOs, screech of industry and mine workers; 21st-century rap frightened of itself; “underground” in the role of the workers in the Homestead strike shouting slogans back at Capital, knowing it will lose.

So the battle tracks work usually, because the sound makes you believe there’s a monster there worth battling, even if unnamed. But that’s the sound, the noise, of it. The emcees? Mr. Lif on two tracks comes across as self-aware, seeing through the mirror, while the others (Alaska, on "Mic Molest" in this instance) at times seem to be laughing at the reflection as it yells back at them: “everyone’s exactly alike / suck the joy outta life.” But we’re still talking backwards. Thinking ahead, Def Jux has presented ample food for thought. El-P’s album should be a sonic implosion, manically depressing, perfectly dark. Mr. Lif’s album will improve on what we get here, showcase him on his own—Opio on one track and Murs on the other, both certainly amazing emcees, seem (unable to stay on topic) to hold Lif back. Camu Tao impresses with his energy; MHz will not remain unrecognized. Aesop Rock’s moment shines, 1920s ex-pat anger at America, hip hop’s non-savior. About two minutes in, RJD2’s instrumental track decides to blow its listener’s mind. There’s a lot there.

The album works. But it lacks a standout track. As a result, the star of the show is the sound, the same gray color as the album cover, a frightening (new?) vision of post-apocalyptic hip hop music. The emcees seem to be, as a whole, capable of more; one hopes the next installment of the def jux presentation will realize more of their potential.

By Daniel Thomas-Glass

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