Thank God for the next generation of hip-hop. About this time two years back, I had just about resigned myself to the fact that Snoop Doggy Dogg and all those other gangsta-wannabees were going to rule the airwaves forever, but then in came the heralds of a new wave of positive rap, the kind that’d been submerged in the scene for so long a lot of people just plain forgot it ever existed. Granted, artists like Blackalicious, The Roots, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli didn’t just come out of nowhere, but they’ve only recently dug their way to the surface. For my money, it’s a well-timed move — I think a lot of hip-hop fans out there are just as sick as I am of violent, stupid fronting, and we want to hear something beyond Eminem’s pathetic posturing.
How’s this relate to the Pharcyde? Well, the crazy kids responsible for Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde and Labcabincalifornia have mostly grown up — the only glimpse of their past mischievousness shows its face in “Blaze”, an African-flavored ode to pot that somehow anthropomorphizes a marijuana plant and follows it to its eventual end. Few wacky voices or goofy juvenile raps here, but you won’t miss ’em. Those childish days have given way to a more confident, less gimmicky (although still playful at times) sound, firmly in the positive style. Tracks like “Network” and “Guestlist” are reminiscent of The Roots’ or Blackalicious’ best stuff; not too much of a surprise, considering The Roots’ BlackThought guests on the former.
Don’t worry that it’s all copycatting, mind you, ’cause these Cali boys give the album a smooth West Coast shine, making everything nice and jazzy and far from as dark and organic as some of their East Coast counterparts. Things almost get R&B or gospel on a few tracks, notably “Misery” and “Evolution”. “Evolution”, by the by, is essentially a meditation on these kids’ trials and tribulations growing up from silly-rap kids to real live adults, and stands out as one of the most thoughtful and poetic cuts here. The next track, “Frontline”, continues the theme, equating the struggle to make it out from under the crushing weight of same-sounding hip-hop to an all-out war, and then, listening to the lyrics, it all starts to make sense.
The Pharcyde have spent their time in the scene growing up and becoming men, only to open their eyes and take a look around at the world they’re living in. What they’ve seen is that they’re literally surrounded by nothing but guns and gold, rhymes about killing and making money. There is a war out there, believe it, and I’m glad to see a new company of soldiers leading the charge up the hill.