The 15-year history of Slum Village has been filled with more astounding highs and devastating lows than most groups will ever see in their careers. Their first two albums, 1996’s Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 and 2000‘s Fantastic Vol. 2, were key to putting Detroit hip-hop on the map. Producer J Dilla eventually moved on to pursue a solo career. Remaining members T3 and Baatin soldiered on, bringing newcomer Elzhi into the fold. Baatin exited the group, plagued by mental illness, and Slum Village the duo scored a pair of minor hits in “Tainted” and “Selfish.” Dilla passed away due to complications from lupus in 2006. Baatin returned to the fold in 2008, but he passed away unexpectedly in 2009. By the time Villa Manifesto was complete, T3 had reportedly kicked Elzhi out of the group. What was to be a Slum Village reunion album quickly turned into an epitaph.
Slum Village has always been about amazing beats and a capable group kicking rhymes on top. Khrysis ushers the album in with triumphant fanfares on “Bear Witness,” while the MCs talk trash and Dilated Peoples’ DJ Babu provides the cuts. “Lock It Down” grinds on a sinister guitar vamp provided by J Dilla. “Scheming” features De La Soul’s Posdnous and A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg, guesting on the choruses over Young RJ’s bed of skittering strings. The album’s highlight, the Dwele-assisted “Don’t Fight the Feeling/Daylight,” starts out as a syrupy love rap but devolves midway through into a raucous Latin dance party.
Villa Manifesto has got plenty of the beat wizardry and raw lyricism that fans of Slum Village have come to expect from the group, but the album is not without its faults. Many of its guest features are greatly exaggerated. “2000 Beyond” touts a feature from the Roots’ ?uestlove, but he only shows up to play the “Funky Drummer” beat, the proverbial dead horse of hip-hop breaks. The Dilla verses aren’t all exclusive to the album. The inclusion of Dilla’s brother Illa J, admittedly to give the album more of a “Dilla vibe,” reeks of pandering.
A couple of the songs are missteps. The disco romp “Dance” and the raunchy sex rap “Um Um” don’t fit in well. Worst of all is the criminal removal of Elzhi’s verses from all but five of the album’s 13 tracks. Giving Elzhi, far and away the best lyricist in the history of the group, a lapdog role on the album was not a smart decision. It brings the whole record down.
Villa Manifesto has been frustratingly savaged by all of the death, dysfunction, and mismanagement that plagued its creation. T3 is not a terribly gifted wordsmith, and Slum Village has always gotten by on amazing production and the presence of someone more intriguing than he is. With Dilla and Baatin gone, Elzhi pushed to the very margins, and Illa J starring as the ghost of Dilla, Villa Manifesto leaves quite a bit to be desired. It’s good, but it should have been great.