Review ·

An even balance of creative rhyme and turntablism populates the High & Mighty's second full-length, The Highlite Zone, released on their own Eastern Conference Records. Production, as usual for Philly's well respected underground duo, takes a front seat throughout the album. DJ Mighty Mi accentuates the tracks with piano-heavy breaks and scratching, creating a tone of gangsta rap swagger.

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The beats are big and slow and Eon moves along sluggishly in the foreground, fighting for attention in the midst of Mi's record-cutting dynamics. Various Philadelphia references are thrown about as serious and sometimes comical themes are tackled in a rather sharp-witted manner. The two, who brought us the seminal "B-Boy Document" in 1998 and helped put Rawkus on the map, have been operating as an underground force for almost two decades. And it's evident that they've brought the sounds of their favorite vinyl along with them so that they might incorporate it into their own thang.

The High & Mighty call back the days of EPMD and even Big Daddy Kane, mostly because of Highlite Zone's blues-infected backdrop. The pianos, lead guitar loops and scratching allude to a fondness for EPMD's "So What Cha Sayin'," and these gents integrate samples of other tracks to sometimes finish half a line or so, taking tips from Public Enemy. For the most part,The Highlite Zone represents a passion for hip-hop as it used to be. Today's chart-toppers will allude to the classics either by shout-outs or jackin' an occasional beat, but the High & Mighty weaves their influences in and out of their tracks, sometimes sounding as if this album came out in '89.

Though Mi wastes little time along each track, providing relevant samples here and wicked-fast scratching there, his minimalism works just as well, such as indicated on the comical diss track, "Take it Off." It's an assault on advocates of the throwback jersey; the High & Mighty proclaim that they are the original purveyors of the style. It features a brief guest spot from Can Ox's Vast Aire and Mr. Eon's blatant finger-pointing: "Throwback authentic? You a replica / Never really knew who Keith Hernandez was, cuz/ '85 I was Eric Dickerson / You in a size fifty-six Spud Webb lookin' ridiculous."

Mi's bare-bones beat is pieced together with bass drum, funky breaks and a sing-along chorus, showcasing the deejay's ability to wreak turntablist havoc on most tracks but provide the same effect when holding back.

An equally effective narrative comes across in a Shady Records-type yarn spun in "Betcha Life." It's a seedy slice of the paper to be made in gambling. Eon is careful to include all aspects of the risks involved. He muses on the "Wifey at home ... getting' all nosy" and the looming and impatient bookie.

Eon also plays the part of the second-guesser, rethinking his bets as a "family man" with a "mortgage" to think about. Mighty Mi cuts gangster film samples to shreds while a funk piano loop brings the tale and its speaker to its obvious and disturbing climax. Even more disturbing is actor Michael Rapaport's guest verse on "How to Rob an Actor." Time spent pondering his contribution to the record would be as pointless as the contribution itself, though. It's boring, crude and as dumb as his character in Higher Learning.

The Highlite Zone highlights (you like that?) a creative duo from the City of Brotherly Love. Mr. Eon and DJ Mighty Mi broadcast experience on this one, as they clearly represent classic hip-hop tastes and usher forth old school flourishes in beats and rhyme skills.

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