Boasting a successful, 20-year career, Japanese-American rapper Lyrics Born has one foot planted firmly in the independent world as the co-founder of the rap labels Soulsides Records and Quannum Projects, and the other foot in the mainstream, where his music can be heard in commercials for EA Sports and Diet Coke. He is also a member of the duo Latryx with his partner in rhyme, Lateef the Truthspeaker. The group recently released The Second Album, which was heralded as “gorgeous and contemplative” by famed music critic Robert Christgau, who also deemed it “hands-down, the alt-rap album of the year.” LB will release his fourth solo album Real People, recorded entirely in New Orleans, on April 7, 2015, via his Mobile HomeRecordings. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Off the top, let me just say I was a Dru Hill fan in the ’90s. They were, perhaps, one of the last all-leather-matching-custom-sleeveless-sweatsuit-donning, Nike Air Force One-sporting, no-shirt-having, platinum-chain-swinging, choreographed-dance-moving r&b groups of their era. It was a great fucking era, son. Say what you want — and people did — about the platinum finger wave hairstyle and one-handed cartwheels, that MF Sisqo could always sang. Not this weird, whiny, where-the-fuck-would-I-be-without-Autotune (and not even “Autotune-as-a-cool-effect” Autotune, but literally “How-the-fuck-else-am-I-going-to-pull-off-some-of-these-notes-without-Autotune?” Autotune) r&b, but that soulful, K-Ci/Bobby Womack/Teddy P, sweating-my-baby-hairs-off, belting-from-the-gut singing that you just can’t do unless you are a real vocalist.
I was especially geeked to write about this album because bruh is from Baltimore, which is a story in itself. I fuckin’ love B’more. I’ve played in Baltimore multiple times, and you will not visit a realer city. You want a pack of Orbit? Go see my dude behind the glass. You want Jamaican food? Crab cakes? Fish sandwich? Again, dude behind the glass. Shit, you want a gentrified-ass maté latte with light foam and two bags of Splenda? Chances are, you’re still gonna get it from dude behind the glass. I can only imagine what it took to emerge as a singer, or any kind of artist, in a town this real, with no major label or corporate entertainment presence. I know, because I live in the Bay Area, where we also have neither. However, these are the kinds of towns that produce artists, people that never give up. That’s why I will listen to anybody who has the drive to continue releasing albums in perhaps one of the most artist-unfriendly genres of the music industry: modern r&b. Nineteen years after Dru Hill’s debut, here is their best-known member Sisqo once again, still breathing fire.
Everybody knows Sisqo’s got pipes. Barring any mental issues or debilitating physical ailments, for most artists it ain’t the skills that disappear. It’s the drive, desire and quality of material that can escape a veteran artist over time. I already knew he could still hold a note, and was willing to bet he could still paint those soulful runs all across the track. I was more curious about how he would adapt to a modern r&b landscape that is far less gospel-tinged and much more sparse (Chris Brown), more racy (Trey Songz), more friendly to effects-heavy vocals (Ty Dolla $ign) and is way more edgy and druggy (the Wknd, Makonnen), yet is still poppy and hip-hoppy (Drake). Suffice it to say, The Last Dragon holds its own against all of the aforementioned top-tier singers, and it’s full of songs like the ones you would hear on modern r&b radio right now.
This incarnation of the dragon doesn’t see Sisqo necessarily singing circles around MFs on every song in the way that we know he can, because the criteria for being a great singer are very different since Dru Hill first dropped. Being a vocal virtuoso is not necessarily in the job description these days. This album is about tone, stacked Autotune melodies and harmonies, clever, slang-infused lyrics, attitude and vibe. In that respect he’s hitting all his marks. Standouts are “A-List” with Wocka Flocka, the retro “Round And Round,” the Terence Trent D’Arby-esque “Ipologize” and my personal fave, “David Blaine.” He fuckin’ kills that joint. Triplets, grit, power — his chops are still on point, as is his “Thong Song” wit: “Doin’ magic tricks with my Magic Stick….” That shit had me majorly weak. The rapper in me changed the lyrics and I started singing that shit in the first person, as “Asian Blaine.” Wifey was like WTF? Then I put it on her. JK.
Speaking of which, I would have personally liked Sisqo to have featured more rappers on the album — but that’s coming from a rapper, so go figure. As with r&b, the hip-hop landscape has transformed since his last album, and it would’ve been interesting to hear him paired with some of the younger wave of MCs. On the flip-side, I know what it is to be an independent artist in this time period (as Sisqo now is), and the urgency to get an album out and circulating in the world doesn’t always afford us the time to keep that verse open for a guest indefinitely. I can’t lie, though, just to keep it all the way funky with you: there are moments where I missed those signature, soulful, belty runs and ad libs that Sisqo used to weave in and out of his hooks and around his verses. He does give us a little of that on ballads like “Monsta” and “Lips” (all the titles are fucking awesome, btw), just to prove he still can. Nearly two decades after Dru Hill’s first album, Sisqo’s still that dude. All hail (the platinum blonde) Caesar.