“Our father Jacob is having a dream,“ Hell Razah recounts at the outset of the excellent Razah’s Ladder. “And in this dream he sees a ladder that’s set up on the earth, and the top of it reaches into the heaven. He say he can hail the angels of Yahweh, ascending and descending on this ladder, and when he look to the top of it, he saw the creator of the universe: Yahweh. He who is, he who was, and he who shall be.”
Over Blue Sky Black Death’s lonely saxophone, the telling of the Old Testament tale is a perfect intro for the brooding Ladder; right away, Razah establishes himself as the wise seer, tugging at his thick beard as he explains the ways of the world, as he bring us up his ladder one rung at a time.
Samples from the poorly aging Tarantino-lite Boondock Saints are awkward but easy to ignore thanks to Razah’s engaging, often cryptic lyrics, especially his oblique Judaism references. Razah, who came up with the Wu-Tang-affiliated Sunz of Man and has run solo since 2001’s When All Hell Breaks Loose, has, as far as I can tell, no explicit association with Judaism. (He says on 2004’s “What Gangstas Do”: “I injure players like Ray Lewis, vests spray through it/ Get mad cash like I’m half Jewish.”) Repeatedly, he draws an association with Jews and Israel: “I was told by wise men that the blacks was Jews/ So that made me strap up with tools”; “This for the kids outside that’s in the military/ No matter black or Israeli, they both want us buried”; “I get chills from the pain every time that I kneel/ Now my head is saying prayer for the rest of Israel”; “I’m about to blow like an ave. in Tel Aviv”; “On Shabbat we give the Most High props through hip-hop.”
That’s one of the intriguing things about hip-hop; it’s a conducive medium for a vocalist to craft a persona. Razah’s enigmatic lyrics hint at a personally cultivated, oddball belief system, and, like the best material from his former mentors in the Wu-Tang Clan, demand repeat listenings for proper deciphering.
Razah summed up the recording process, a full-album collaborative effort with the relatively new San Francisco production duo Blue Sky Black Death, as “Studio equipment, Hennessy bottles, spiritual books, sour diesel, and a box of Dutches.” Kingston and Young God of Blue Sky Black Death explained further that that they provided Razah with more beats than he could use, allowing him to pick and choose the best fits. And it shows: The production makes Razah’s mid-groove flow seem downright effortless. Razah’s Ladder makes me wonder, once again, why more emcee don’t employ the practice of the full-album collaboration.
On “Audiobigoraphy,” Razah walks us through his sojourning, small-stakes career — through busted record deals, limited-run seven-inches, flopping LPs — as much for his own fleeting posterity as for our sake. At one point he brings up a few perceived creative appropriations from his higher-profile one-time boosters — “Me and 7th did "Livin’ in Hell"/ Pressed up it independent, not knowin’ if a record would sell/ Rae and Ghost made "Heaven & Hell" while we was hearin’ it/ Meanwhile we thinkin’ it was all coincidence.” He’s not bitter — more confused, shruggingly pensive about what might have been.
Of course, the burn of watching dudes he came up with grace magazine covers and cash royalty checks that as far as Razah is concerned might well have been his will never completely fade. But the emcee has seemingly accepted his fate as a foot soldier in the campaign for quality hip-hop, independent or otherwise. This late-career period finds Razah at ease — confident, reflective, singularly focused on his music, free of resentment. As Razah’s Ladder attests, it should be a fertile one.