Probably ignored because of their unfortunately chosen group name, the members of CunninLynguists have quietly released one of the best hip-hop records this year. A Piece of Strange tells a loose tale of the pathway to and from sin, and although the story doesn't hold together as well as they would probably like it to, every song is a winner. The superb production from producer/emcee Kno pulls in a wide range of jazz, soul and psychedelic rock, displaying excellent taste and an excellent ear for beats. Even the occasional sped-up vocal is appropriately utilized -- maybe the first time it's seemed like a permanent style rather than a trend.
With only a few guests, including an unmemorable Cee-Lo performance and a great verse from Tonedeff, the record has a strong voice, and the group can even -- on occasion -- make a powerful statement. The previous two CunnninLynguists records were easy to dismiss as underground posturing and generic production, but the group's work here is emotional and honest, even on tracks as seemingly industry-typical as "What'll You Do" and as politically charged as "The Gates," which is the first section of a three-part descent into hell. Like most great music, at a certain point the members can get away with whatever they want simply because it is good. Somehow, "Beautiful Girl," their ode to weed, goes over well, even as two tracks later they malign the protagonist who lives "savagely/ only thing you put passion in is Zig Zag packaging."
The record is so high quality that it's almost tragic that people who really love hip-hop have avoided it. Again, we're back to blaming the group's name (without forgetting the obvious lack of promotion). It's a difficult name to get past, somewhere between indie-hip-hop cleverness and juvenile dare gone too far, but once you do, it's easy to see what's going on here: A group called CunninLynguists has put out a great record. Yeah, Juliet, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; it's just a little harder to bring your nose up to it the first time.
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