Since the millennium began, hip-hop has seen emcees both established and aspiring pair up with a crop of up-and-coming deejays-turned-producers and sound-alike R&B stars in an attempt to widen their appeal. The results, though great for mixtapes, are often horrible for full-lengths. Long gone are the thematic vibes of Illmatic or Cuban Linx. Nowadays, discs are marketed with a Kanye-produced first single and an appearance by Ashanti, Mariah Carey and/or Farnsworth Bentley. Although he was called a sellout then, LL Cool J’s invention of the “female song” with “I Need Love” is considered genius, a move Fabolous and Nelly have built careers upon.
It’s refreshing, then, that the Alchemist could give the Band-Aid under his left eye about being on the radio or in the club. Homie’s in the streets, where real hip-hop lives and breathes. The fluid bass lines and crisp drum cracks that are found all over 1st Infantry recall hip-hop’s early-’90s ruggedness. Enlisting an all-star lineup of gritty corner-dwellers to spit over his lurching, ethereal soundscapes, Al drops the most cohesive blend of beats and rhymes heard all year.
After an intro that recaps Alchemist’s greatest hits thus far (Mobb Deep’s “The Realest,” Dilated Peoples’ “Worst Comes to Worst,” Jadakiss’s “We Gonna Make It”), the ball gets rolling with “Dead Bodies,” featuring Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and newest G-Unit member the Game. The two ride back-and-forth over a dark piano loop and scratched samples, with Compton’s finest stealing the show on lines like, “I didn’t get a million dollars when I signed my deal,” a playful reference to buddy 50 Cent (who netted that much when he inked with Shady/Aftermath). The breezy chemistry found here sets a standard that, with the exception of a few tracks, the rest of the album never fails to meet.
“The Essence” follows, featuring the first of several appearances by the D-Block boys (Jadakiss, Styles, Sheek, J-Hood). This launches a hip-hop wet dream that lasts a good eight tracks. Highlights include “Hold You Down,” the incredible “Stop the Show” (featuring New South sensation Stat Quo and Brooklyn warriorz M.O.P.), “Bangers” (a Lloyd Banks murder spree), and the freaky “Where Can We Go,” assisted by the always-perverted (and under-appreciated) Devin the Dude.
Al’s also done a good job of breaking up the monotony of multiple cameos (Mobb Deep is featured five times; D-Block three), either by including only one or two members per track or by sequencing the album so they don’t all run together. The addition of hilarious interludes (“Industry Rule 4080”) also helps in making the album feel like a whole, rather than parts.