Review ·

It’s been more than ten years since Casual, the third member of Hieroglyphics to put together a solo career, released Fear Itself (Jive), a visceral, street-smart debut that showcased his battle-honed emcee skills. Three full-lengths later, Casual Presents Smash Rockwell is a refreshing reminder of how complex, intriguing and ultimately exciting hip-hop can be.

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Not to be confused with Handsome Boy Modeling School’s Chest Rockwell (a.k.a. Prince Paul), Casual’s Smash Rockwell persona is a full-on Oakland head, but with a wider outlook than Casual has previously shown. “Smash Rockwell is me at my finest,” Casual says. “And the term ‘smash’ in Oakland means to get aggressive and take control, which is what I’ve done with my life, my business and this album.”

Unlike 2001’s He Think He Raw (Hiero Imperium), Casual embraces a more positive estimation of the state of hip-hop while calling out the issues that still plagued it, including materialism and disingenuousness. On the infectious single, “Say That Then,” which couples a wicked beat with lyrics that mock hip-hop’s materialism, he says it's not about what you look like but what you have to say. Casual cements his position within hip-hop on this record, and specifically on the swaggering “Wakemup.” He rightfully brags about his rhyme skills and his uncanny delivery style, which combines syncopated cadences and killer pitch changes. “Rap Game” is Causal having fun, working between a falsetto on the hook to a stutter-stepping staccato to round it out.

With production credits going to Casual, his Hiero label mates A-Plus (Souls of Mischief) and Domino, fellow West Coast luminaries Dan the Automator and Jake One, East Coast producers J-Zone and Young Zee, and London’s Artistry, the album has amazing beats, each representing the producer’s particular scene. Smash Rockwell upholds the Hiero and underground-hip-hop sonic aesthetics, but at times it is a great, accessible party album that should win over fans from outside the underground community without sacrificing any credibility. This album is another fine installment in Casual’s career.

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