Few in underground hip-hop have Rolodexes that can compare to North Carolina beatmaker 9th Wonder’s, and with good reason. His signature sound—a sort of updated synthesis of the smooth, blunted boom-bap of Pete Rock and Da Beatminerz—has made him the go-to guy for mainstream rappers when they want to co-opt the sounds of realness, as well as (partially due to his involvement with seminal N.C. hip-hop crew Little Brother) the template for a new generation of old-school devotees.
So with all that in mind, it should come as no surprise that 9th's fourth solo album The Wonder Years will be the one album in the history of recorded sound where you can find one-fifth of the Wu-Tang Clan on the same track list as Mac Miller. And Blu. And Warren G. And Tanya Morgan. And Erykah Badu. You get the point. 9th Wonder’s beats have come to mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, and it’s interesting to see how the diverse roster of guests takes to a set of beats that adhere to what turns out to be a reflection of 9th's admittedly limited range, which basically runs the gamut of soulful boom-bap to electro-influenced boom-bap that adheres to a formula of, “We’re going to do this EXACTLY how Dilla would have done it.”
Inevitably, the best tracks feature combinations of artists who under normal circumstances would share space on wax, such as Warren G, Murs, and Kendrick Lamar on “Enjoy,” or rappers unimpeachably great enough to turn whatever they’re handed into absolute fire (Raekwon on “No Pretending,” anyone?). Meanwhile, the inherent chill vibes of these beats inevitably lead to these guests dropping loverman raps. Masta Killa, perhaps the tenderest vegetarian rapper in all the land with the word “kill” in his moniker, is in his zone on “Loyalty,” essentially rewriting his verses on his own “Love Spell.” Talib Kweli has less luck on “Never Stop Loving You,” showing his age by dropping a Harry Potter reference that might have been fresh in ’03.
The preponderance of relationship rap on this disc misses the point of what made, say, Black Moon sound so fresh in ’93, which was that they managed to juxtapose the sedate with the antagonistic—while Da Beatminerz might have been shooting for quiet storm, Buckshot was having none of that shit and was ready to scrap and steal your girl at the drop of a hat. Consider when Jay-Z solicited a beat from 9th for The Black Album: he might have been rapping over an R. Kelly sample, but Jay turned “Threat” into a song full of raw menace.
If there’s one rapper who understands fewer things than any other rapper in the universe, it’s Mac Miller, the 19-year-old Pittsburgh rapper who until very recently was known only as “Wiz Khalifa’s white friend.” How he snuck on this album, I have no idea. But he gets what is tantamount to his own track on the album, with occasional interjections from the heretofore unknown R&B tunestress Heather Victoria, who should remain unindicted by what very well could be a Pro Tools-induced collaboration. But anyway, Mac Miller begins “That’s Love,” his (nearly inevitable) relationship narrative, by claiming, “Even gangsta motherfuckers fall in love,” and then ends it with an extended diatribe surrounding the word “bitch.” In 2011, there is nothing transgressive or edgy about using the word “bitch,” even in a joking context. It’s just stupid.
It’s a shame that Mac Miller exists (both in real life and in the context of this album), because he follows a feisty team-up of Rapsody and Erykah Badu, a tracklisting error that latently negates their salvo of feminine independence on “Twenty Feet Tall.” However, don’t let Miller’s presence detract you from buying an otherwise perfectly adequate album. Let the rest of the stuff that’s wrong with it do that.
Leading up the release of The Wonder Years, producer (and sometimes rapper) 9th Wonder built himself a pretty strong catalog. As a featured producer, he provided beats for everyone from Jay-Z to De La Soul to Lil B. 9th also put together a string of full-on collaborative albums with Murs, Buckshot, David Banner, Jean Grae, and, of course Little Brother. But the Durham, N.C. native hadn't had a proper solo debut under his belt, except for a pair of compilation-style projects called Dream Merchant. The Wonder Years changes all that as it represents 9th's first true album as a solo artist. He's not going it alone, though. A slew of artists -- including Erykah Badu, Big K.R.I.T, and former Little Brother partner Phonte -- jumped on the record to provide either guest verses or hooks.