This literal descent into the heart of darkness begins with a fictitious cab ride. As the little playlet that is the opening track leaves our heroes off in the Red Hook Projects (dropped off by a cabbie who is reluctant and scared but not afraid to overcharge for the fare), we enter the world of a forgotten and forsaken New York neighborhood, but one that’s also filled with creativity, rebellion and faith in redemption and salvation.
Welcome To Red Hook Houses is a raw, powerful exploration of the depths of madness endured and indulged in at the projects, Brooklyn’s infamous housing units that pawned hip-hop legends along with a mountain of crime stats and individual stories of despair. Wu-Tang Clan alums Hell Razah and Shabazz the Disciple are apt tour guides, having grown up there and participated in both sides of the story. While familiar hip-hop touchstones are here as they detail the horrors and bragging rights of street life, the record also powerfully shines a light on grief and hope in ways that are not typical. Razah and Shabazz are often as raw in their emotion as they are in their language. This is truth without the glamour.
Over a classic ’90s hip-hop sound that includes slow piano samples and jazz quotes, tracks like “Jail Saga” and “Gang Love” hold a mirror up to what it takes to survive in a place that is both home and a sort of prison, and in the lyrics there is some pride in having been able to do what one had to do and in the reliance on loyal friends. That loyalty, which aside from music was often the neighborhood’s only bright spots, elevates some of the other tracks.
A slew of producers chip in, including Vanderslice, Bronze Nazareth, Blue Sky Black Death, Smoke Shop and Shroom, and the variation actually helps with coherence. They all seem to get the message, and each track, no matter who is behind the controls, is infused with a sad, reflective tone.
Grim and grieving, “The Obituary,” “The Visit” and “My Brother’s Keeper” look with sadness, beyond the bravado, to weighing the cost of losses and to hope for redemption. Here Razah and Shabazz take on the roll of elders, trying to make sense of the past and offering wisdom for the future. Welcome to Red Hook Houses is somber but defiant look at the friendships, creativity and power of testimony that exists in even the most grim circumstances.
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