Jedi Mind Tricks have been around for longer than any such off-kilter underground hip-hop crew has a right to. The group’s 1997 debut, The Psycho-Social, Chemical, Biological, and Electro-Magnetic Manipulation of Human, introduced us to a world of abstract lyricism, grandiloquent production and surprisingly few Star Wars references. Over the course of the four LPs that would follow, Jedi Mind Tricks’ emcee has changed his name from Ikon to Vinnie Paz and his voice has grown consecutively gruffer. But the constant and overwhelming reason to check out the crew’s output is still producer Stoupe. His masterful touch reworking orchestral strings and flourishes may remind you of other producers’ work but retains a stamp of its own.
Skip straight to “Outlive the War”; it’s a bounce track, but instead of sped-up soul vocals, Stoupe weaves in delicate operatic chorals and snaking strings while Vinnie Paz and backpackers’ favorite gun clappa rappa Sean Price kick battle lyrics. The strings on “Heavy Metal Kings” call to mind a cinematic scene of cavalry rushing to war, and The Godfather strings of “Put ‘Em in the Grave” make a wonderfully light touch to counter Vinnie Paz’s rough flow.
Vinnie doesn’t quite have the abstract touch of his distant past. Guest Ill Bill sums up Jedi Mind Tricks’ lyrical evolution best in the first lines of his guest verse when he states, “Without water nothing
exists, without chaos nothing evolves/ Now get on your knees so I can stick this gun in your mouth.” Exactly. Come for the underground East Coast battle rap, stay for the touches that set the album apart.
“Razorblade Salvation” receives a lot of hype because it reworks Sufjan Stevens’s “Dumb I Sound” and features Stevens’s back-up vocalist and My Brightest Diamond frontwoman Shara Worden. Its suicidal ruminations make for a nice introspective moment, but the track doesn’t stand as the sole reason for admission. “Shadow Business” addresses third-world sweatshops; it would have been even cooler if he had called out Nike by name, but it still gets points for content.
Rappers have been referencing Vietnam metaphorically for ages, but “Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story” is a fairly original take on the subject. In it, guest emcee R.A. the Rugged Man offers a first-person narrative that apparently recounts the experience of his father, Staff Sgt. John A. Thorburn, and the effects that Agent Orange had on R.A.’s brother and sister (both were born severely handicapped). The underlying metaphors aren’t to be ignored, especially considering that Paz closed his previous album with the anti-war track “Before the Great Collapse.”
Vinnie Paz offers enough unorthodox moments to carry Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell, and Stoupe’s production continues to anchor and offset his verbal assaults. Not all crews can survive outgrowing the gimmicks of their youth, but the members of Jedi Mind Tricks have substance outweighing their clever name.
Band (stream “Razorblade Salvation” and “Heavy Metal Kings”): http://www.jedi-mind-tricks.com/
Label: http://www.babygrande.com/Audio: http://www.myspace.com/jedimindtricks