It seems sometimes like every debut rap album is long-awaited, highly anticipated. We heard the usual phrases a couple weeks ago on Muja Messiah‘s premier release ("They said this would never get done…I made it happen. I was part-time hustlin’, now I’m full-time rappin’ "). Likewise, in the liner notes to their new CD, the Doomtree crew informs us this project has ‘been a long time coming.’ That phrase is repeated verbatim on the hook of "Let Me Tell You, Baby," and echoes throughout various songs on the album. "So coming soon to a college town near you/here we are DTR/holla atcha rap group," Mictlan, one of the collective’s five emcees, intones on the lead-off track.
And indeed, there has been hype. After P.O.S.’s second solo album made waves in 2006 as The Next Big Thing in Minneapolis hip-hop, a palpable bit of excitement presaged this crew’s collective release. As a group they’ve been gaining steam around town, playing to packed crowds, and even scoring a slot this last spring to open for the Wu-Tang Clan.
So here it is! The first collaborative album featuring all the members of Doomtree.
Maybe we should have waited a little longer.
It’s a bad sign that the five solo tracks (each MC is given one showcase piece) are five of the best six songs on the album. ("Kid Gloves," with Mictlan and Dessa, is the only tandem track to crack the shortlist.) When it comes to collaboration, the group fails to find any real cohesion. Three or four or five rappers might all appear over a single beat, but they are unable to transcend their personal styles to become a unit. There isn’t much interplay between the rappers; rather it typically goes verse-hook-verse-hook-verse-hook. Listening to them is kind of like watching the 2004 USA men’s basketball team at the Olympics – a bunch of obviously talented individuals that are unable to work together. (Hey, guess what’s on TV…)
Certainly there are moments of virtuosity on Doomtree.
Cecil Otter is able to devise rhyme schemes more twisted and intricate than anything he’s previously created, and he sounds natural spitting them out – one doesn’t get a sense that he’s impressed with how clever he is. And the production is consistent; never exactly innovative, but never sinking a track down, either. Which is exactly what you want, because the beats should never outshine the rhymes on a rap album. MK Larada, Turbo Nemesis, Paper Tiger, and Maker display a variety of styles, ranging from jazzy-cool to hard-rock-hard.
The most consistently outstanding member is Dessa, the collective’s lone female member. Her solo piece, "Sadie Hawkins," is by far the most successful part of the album. She’s the only one who’s able to morph her style to a given beat, to curve her talent to a track. In most cases, too, her lyrics are the most on point, the cleverest, and spoken with the most original delivery. Her solo album is highly anticipated.
But these strengths are overwhelmed by the fact that, by and large, no one is really saying anything. The words rhyme, but only sometimes match; many songs are more akin to polished freestyle sessions than to finished written songs. The first verse to open up the album features an impressively complex rhyme scheme:
"We work the mics and rehearse the lines that life furthers/
and curse the vines that you might have heard your rumors from/
like it’s me verse a vice or vice versa/
then I returned to the life that Christ nurtured"
Say it aloud and it sounds cool, but if you try to actually understand what it means, you may run into some issues. It may be a debut album, but it’s not a rookie album – these guys have all been around for years, playing shows and releasing EPs. So it’s a little disconcerting to hear Doomtree repeatedly rhyme their way into oblivion. Ultimately, the album is defined by lyrics so disconnected that they become abstract, so abstract that they deteriorate and become indecipherable.