The hip-hop instrumental album is a strange duck. You have heavy-hitters like Shadow and RJD2 who reject simple loops in favor of dynamic movement in their tracks, and then you have the myriad instrumental versions of your favorite rappers' albums, released only to become deejay fodder or to save face when a weak emcee gets blessed with tracks he doesn't deserve. And then you have the middle ground, which is the realm of Mathematics' Soul of a Man.
The eighteen-tracks on Soul of a Man hint at variety but mostly work within a five-minute-loop school of thought. Mathematics has been holding things down as backup Wu-Tang producer, which is hardly a slight; when you can sound decent next to the RZA, you can hold your head high. The RZA may not be bigger than Jesus, but he's bigger than Portishead and the Bomb Squad combined, bigger than the almighty Kanye, and at least the equal of Premier.
Mathematics still has props to earn, though. In a year that has brought us bite-sized treats such as J Dilla's Donuts, Madlib's Beat Konducta and MF Doom's Special Herbs boxed set (which, in its aim to compact ten albums into two, makes things better for its brevity), it's hard to sit through some of the five-minute tracks on Soul of a Man. Mash-up mavens looking to link up vocal tracks will love the album, but those listening straight through may lose patience.
Then again, when Mathematics nails a loop, it could go on for days without losing its potency. "Soul 10" (no abstract track names on this one) rides a funky horn track and soulful vocal wail for just the right amount of time before it goes into the bridge, with the female vocals continuing for a few more bars down the sample and the horns suddenly punching the track instead of just driving it smoothly along. That track won't ditch the RZA comparisons, but the oddly psychedelic "Soul 3" just might, tweaking a loop with Mathematics knocking on "The House of the Rising Sun."
"Soul 5" indicates that Soul of a Man might have even been a great album. Mathematics returns to the Wu-Tang staple of sampling kung fu movies, deftly interweaving a sifu relating the tenets of a "Shaolin poem" into a track built on a sparse piano and chopped female wail. The samples give the track some nice texture, and as the vocal sample bleeds into the next track -- a similar joint but with more insistent and dulled piano and male and female wails assailing each other -- there's a nice progression that bumps this above a mere collection of banging beats.
Soul of a Man is a great release for beat-heads and Wu fanatics, although there's not enough here to really bump Mathematics into the upper echelon of abstract hip-hop instrumentalists. Your a cappella of "Hip-Hop vs. Rap" may thank you, though.
Wu Tang Web site