For those not frightened or dismissive of its grandiose concept-album underpinnings, Aceyalone's A Book of Human Language was a stunning hip-hop achievement, an album-length musing on the cycle from birth to death. With Mumbles' production alternately delicate and hard-hitting, Acey had a triumph consistent in tone that built on the cleverness of his debut LP, All Balls Don't Bounce. He followed that with two albums that lacked cohesion, Accepted Eclectic and Love & Hate, but he was fortunate enough to pick up RJD2 along the way. The man from Def Jux contributed a few tracks to Love & Hate, but here he backs up Aceyalone on every track. The pairing brings out the best in both men, who shine in their collaboration and flex the full potential of their artistry.
RJD2's no stranger to struggling with artistic definitions. More than a few folks who jocked Dead Ringer scratched their heads over his psychedelic head trip Since We Last Spoke. The detour served him well, because production on Magnificent City is varied beyond the exuberant soul that defined his early style. RJD2 does remain a wizard of the funky horns; when he opens the record with some Cotton Club trumpets, then settles in with wailing horns and some scratched vocal hooks just for good measure, it announces his stamp on the album and introduces the listener to a unified world of music.
When Acey adds his vocals, it further sets the tone of the record. For a man who's ruminated on record about death and challenged his audience to give him some breathing room in person (on the (un?)intentionally hilarious "5 Feet"), Acey's paean to the listener "All for U" acts as a warm invite more than a cold rebuke. The disco-inferno-torch singing that follows on "Fire," with its guitar licks, bleating bass line, and chorus "Love life, let it love you back" further establishes a positive vibe that shines through the occasional grittiness of the city.
Ace One goes into storytelling-mode on a trilogy of tracks. "The police shot Cornbread in the street" in a spot where "a peaceful man has no place" on "Cornbread, Eddy and Me" (a cinematic title to be sure). "Junior" runs off a breezy if doomed tale of the drug dealer on the block, but the most interesting tale gets recounted in a lackadaisical narrative flow over the sound of crowd chatter and some harmonized childlike wailing, the sad tale of big bad "Solomon Jones" and his lady friend Simone. The tales are in some way the same gangsta fairytales told by all rappers, but instead of the Jay-Z blockbuster version, Aceyalone presents them as literary sketches, lending a humanity that shines past the pretence.
But it bears stating, and it bears repeating: This isn't a concept album. There are repeated themes, however, such as the isolation people feel in the modern hustle, an isolation sometimes chosen and sometimes unavoidable. "Supahero" casts a gimlet eye at romance, playing like a high-minded "Captain Save-a-Hoe," condemning romantic notions of Superman who "ain't one with the people." "Heaven" shows Aceyalone at his inscrutable best; while RJD2 sets the soundtrack with an electric guitar neatly counterposed with twinkling keys, Acey seems to celebrate and condemn an anonymous rebel figure, perhaps bringing hip-hop its first literal "Sympathy for the Devil" expression. And if you don't want to name check the Stones, you might ponder William Blake's reading of John Milton's Lucifer in Paradise Lost as the real hero.
That's heady stuff, and it might scare those who found A Book of Human Language to be a pretentious bore. This LP doesn't really contain Aceyalone at his most abstract, however, and in some cases it could use a touch more subtlety (the album's biggest misstep, "Moore," drones on in content and delivery about the sins of gluttony and excess). Such failings are few, though; "High Life" shows that even the most played-out of concepts - the weed track - can still be dope if the production's nice, and RJD2 just kills it with a rollicking piano, scuttling bass line and psychedelic fuzzy bass. The triptych that closes the album cements its greatness. "Heaven" casts its energetic barrage, then "Here & Now" tweaks a blues guitar with sweeping harp; the narrator gets cast into the cold world, fresh out the womb, as his mother counsels him that "time is worth more than gold." The passion shines through RJD2, who not only mans the board but also lends his voice to a reasonable facsimile of indie-rock crooning. Finally, "A Beautiful Mine" swirls a broad register of strings as Acey literally deconstructs a mind in all its human potential.
We all may be "born alone, die alone," as Acey repeats on "Disconnected," but that isolation can always be overcome. On "Cornbread, Eddy and Me," he says "somebody told me the road to freedom is lonely/ But I swear I ain't going on my own" and talks of bringing his family and friends. Aceyalone can't do it by himself, and by finding a kindred musical spirit in RJD2, he manages to make an album as expansive as his talent continually hints at.