Encore is ready for his close up. Posted in front of a Bed-Stuy brownstone during a bright and deceptively breezy Saturday in May, the Milpitas, Calif. emcee stands tall. The six-footer kicks game and exchanges coy wordplay with Ladybug Mecca from ’90s jazz rap trio Digable Planets while Hieroglyphics beatsmith Domino and the perpetually under-the-radar emcee Wordsworth look on. Encore rocks the new Gucci signature sneakers with the matching bucket hat. Starched, creaseless designer denim jacket and pants make his cipher complete. Mecca still manages to out shine Encore, having shed her ’90s modest earth-girl garb and cropped natural. With her newly colored and straightened locks stylishly hoisted into a side ponytail and her slim frame wrapped in an edgy patchwork red dress over jeans and sandals, Mecca captures the attention of everyone on Grand Avenue, except the wannabe Ruff Ryder too busy motorcycling up and down the block in neon leather 2 Fast 2 Furious style. The video shoot for “Real Talk,” Encore’s single featuring Mecca, is the scene. This is what the underground looks like in 2004.
“Real Talk” is the second single from Encore’s second full-length, Layover; “Zigga Zigga” was the first. But ‘Co — or ‘Core, as he is called — is a veteran. His voice first graced vinyl damn near ten years ago on “Think Twice” from Peanut Butter Wolf’s debut EP, and he has steadily churned out singles and guest appearances in addition to his grossly overlooked debut album, 2000’s Self Preservation. But ‘Co can’t boast of that many fans outside of the West Coast’s insular hip-hop scene that cultivated his formidable rhyme skills. Layover is this self-proclaimed “alpha male’s” attempt to expand his small audience — hence the “Real Talk” video, the R&B hooks courtesy of Bilal sound-a-like Nathan Thomas on “The Schism” and “Faithful,” and the new soundscape courtesy of Seattle crate-diggers Jake One and Vitamin D.
By enlisting Jake One and Vitamin D, in addition to long-time friend and collaborator Architect, who handled all the production on Self Preservation, ‘Co creates a consistently banging album, although glaringly unoriginal. The spare keys on “Break Bread” and goose-bump-inducing guitar licks on “Real Talk” reek of DJ Premier worship, but they work amazingly well with ‘Co’s jam-packed verses and hand-raising hooks. “My Way Home,” ‘Co’s ode to his parents, channels Hi-Tek and samples Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes,” just as Jay Dee did in the mammoth Common record “The Light.” There is an unmistakable East Coast feel to the album’s production and cohesion not common to most contemporary hip-hop albums, thanks to the solid tracks provided by the trio of West Coast producers.
But the explosive chemistry between Encore and the emerging Jake One produce the strongest tracks on the album in “Chocolat Popcorn” and “Layover Overture.” The latter, the first track on Layover, paints the prolific lyricist frustrated with the conflict between musical integrity and commercial success: “I’m more than comfortable with my old soul/ As I struggle to remain pure in my subtle tussle for dough/ We all know this industry is fin’ to get cutthroat/ It’s only logical for ‘Co to essentially go for the gusto.” Stop/start horns signal the beginning of the well-orchestrated sonic canvas of “Chocolat Popcorn.” The seemingly nonsensical track features Encore and fellow Bay Area emcee Arcee sacrificing narrative for tongue-twisting blazing one-liners. Like this one, courtesy of Arcee: “Seldom we deal with phoney/ Rappers they need their cronies/ And got a lotta fuckin’ lip/ Like Angelina Jolie.”
Layover also features guest appearances from Seattleite DJ Topspin and Hieroglyphics family members Opio, A+ of Souls of Mischief, and Pep Love. The oh-so-verbose Pep Love of both Hieroglyphics and Good Brothers fame pushed the stellar lyricism of Encore to an even higher level in “City Livin’.” Featuring horns and a Group Home sample, “City Livin’ ” is a masterful lyrical montage of the bleak circumstance of urban communities, disenfranchisement and even homelessness.
While riding shotgun in Dave Chappelle’s whip in the first season of the latter’s unapologetic and uproarious sketch comedy show, the mighty Mos Def officially renounced his ties to the underground. Addressing Afro-centric incense burners, backpacking purists and naysaying critics alike, Mos warned, “Stop with the nonsense/ like he conscious.” Mos’s buddy Kanye West has shared similar sentiments by frequently expressing his love for the strip club and social-justice issues. Even Encore takes issue with his subterranean status in “Layover Overture”: “Y’all be forever seeing my mug shot/ On a cusp of what’s hot and what’s not/ Not underground just above pop.”
Some may characterize this turn of events as artists refusing to be pigeonholed, but others would say it’s merely savvy marketing strategy. Consciousness-raising doesn’t sell, and that’s exactly what transpires on Encore’s Layover, despite his claims to the contrary or the dapper styling of the “Real Talk” video. Although he confesses that his “master plan is to shine and glisten” on “Essentially Yours,” ‘Co can’t expect to seek the success of the Talib Kweli without enlisting the support of tried and true commercial beat-makers like the “Louis Vuitton Don” himself, Kanye West. Fellow left-coasters Dilated Peoples abandoned their quintessential hardcore sound on the cluttered and choral West track “This Way,” the lead single from Neighborhood Watch, an otherwise quintessentially dark and thumping Dilated album. The gifted Encore may have to consider doing the same if he wants his music to ever see the light of day.