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Freestyle Fellowship - The Promise (2011) [Decon] // Grade: A Freestyle Fellowship released two albums in the early 1990s that defined, and refined, what rap is, and should be: To Whom It May Concern and Innercity Griots. At a time when gangsta rap was all the rage, they released two jazzy, soulfoul, technical and elaborate rap albums that paved the way for many, many underground rap generations to come. The group had a strong visual imagery, each MC had his own distinctive voice and style, and the combination is absolutely unmatched in rap history. The "promise" of the title is one they made waayyy back then: "We'll never fall the fuck off, we promise." Unfortunately, in their two albums of the late 90s (Shockadoom and Temptations) they were perceived to have done just that. Granted, they came after Self Jupiter spent 8 years in jail (for armed robberies caused by his getting in debt due to touring the first albums) and the whole rap bubble had kind of changed in the meantime. Aceyalone went on to regularly release half inconsistent albums; Mikah 9 went on to irregularly release consistently under appreciated albums; PEACE went on to release two reasonable half albums that went completely unnoticed; and Jup released a powerful album before he went to jail more, mostly because some judge didn't think 8 years were enough for him to think about what he had done. When he was finally released in 2009, he rejoined his comrades for a reunion set at the 15th Project Blowed Anniversary and it was like they had never left one another's side. Energized by the response and their own creative outburst the group decided that it was high time for a new Freestyle Fellowship album. Naming this joint The Promise is both an hommage to the past and a show of confidence from a group of 40-somethings: can they possibly deliver on something they said 20 years ago? While the production duties of previous albums were largely handled in house with some help from a select few, this reunion album has a slew of producers. Some of them are young guns whose names you may have heard if you were paying attention: Exile, Kenny Segal and Black Milk all bring in the styles they are known for, ranging from the modern to the classic. I am generally a big fan of Kenny Seg's and I can safely said he delivered on this one. Gimmee is on some LA golden era steez with a story told and an atmosphere created that cannot come out of anywhere but this crew - everyone really shines on this track. The fourtet also appears extremely comfortable on Exile's beat, with some impeccable deliveries layered onto a complex backing track. Of course, when faced with Black Milk's straight-shooting soul bit, the beat is slain in due fashion. Similar treatment is given to Eligh's up-drumbeat "We Are" which served as a album's first single. These tracks do not reinvent the wheel, but they do show the proficiency and versatility of the group, and provide a great introduction for those who did not yet know what they would be listening to. By contrast, when the four men reflect on their respective parenthood experiences on "Daddies," you can clearly hear that they belong to a different era of songwriting, when people actually cared about speaking some truth on the record. Same goes for "Popular," which is not your crybaby approach to fame in spite of its whiny guitar riff:
What if the jokes I told weren't that funny? / I didn't always used to look like this... Why do I think that everybody wants something for nothing? / And why do I have so many messages?Within 50 minutes, you are taken in a stylistic journey spanning hip-hop's history without missing a beat. Familiar hands open and close the album: Omid provides the intro to the album with a smooth funky line paced by the chant "we promised", the same that opens the last track produced by Josef Leimberg with some help from Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Thundercat for a resounding "Promise." Smack down the middle is "Government Lies," which starts accapella and finishes on a scorching beat from LA up-and-comers E. Super. In many ways this track summarizes the whole album, in all of its deceiving straightforwardness and careful intricacies: it has balls. There were no commercial calculations or ignominious incentives to make this album happen. It came out of the mouth of four of the most talented vocalists rap has ever provided, who are still ahead of the game without even trying: "fellowship keep rollin' on and hands keep holdin' on." Myka and Jup are still showstoppers. Acey and Peace are still show runners. After all these years. All of these guys have received major label offers and yet none of them have hit mainstream, could this be the one to bring them the wide recognition they deserve? After all these years? It may or may not happen, and they have been in the game long enough to know that this is not what matters. What matters is carrying on the tradition they grew up with, bringing it to the youth. The album is certainly well-rounded but there is nothing radio friendly about it. It's that old Fellowship sound, brought up to speed with the next generation of producers. There's a good reason the album was called The Promise and not "The Trap" (drug rap notwithstanding): there was no question they would be able to hold true to their word, it was just a matter of when.