The first release since the split of G-Side looks forward, then back, then forward again
What's the most welcome sound on R.E.B.E.L., the new solo EP from ST 2 Lettaz of the now broken-up G-Side? Those shards of Empire of the Sun and Skrillex peaking out from behind the histrionic beats. Pieces of electronic dance and old-wave trance cheese have found a way back into this Huntsville collective's production in a concentrated way not heard since 2008's Starshipz and Rocketz, which introduced the group, and set up the semi-triumphant raps of 2009's Huntsville International and 2011's The One…Cohesive.
iSLAND from last fall, then, was the return to earth. Not due to its quality, but because of its frank concept: A paranoid, mean-mugging response to some praise, from a group that was getting bored with big-time back-patting and music-biz bullshit, already. Now, given the group's break-up, iSLAND sounds like a final lashing out, which is what we all do when we don't know what's coming next. Where to go? Sign with a label and cop out on everything they built up and declared over the past few years? Keep grinding and grinding and grinding? End it all?
And so, when R.E.B.E.L. follows up an intro track of Minister Louis Farrakhan speaking with the trance-music pulse that starts of "We Are The People" (which also has a laser-synth guitar solo and samples the Empire of the Sun song of the same name), it feels like a return of something, even if it's only half the group that's back for more. A speech at the end of "People" bends back to the dutiful street-code laid down on Huntsville International ("The whole point of flipping a brick was to flip it legit"): "I ain't mad at the youth for taking up arms, and they're ready to fight, nah, because they know something's wrong. I'm just mad at the O.G.s for not showing them where to aim. The real purpose of this gang culture was to protect the community from the police and the government. The opposition." These Slow Motion Soundz guys, always with the accountability.
Part of that accountability means coming clean. On "People," referencing Public Enemy (and maybe the Pharcyde, as well), ST reads an imagined letter from the government: "Who the fuck are you to make a bunch of rap songs telling kids to get up and get a job? / You was talking that W-2 boy shit and still getting bricks in for the 10-5." He's calling himself out, admitting to preaching one thing and living another, which places him in the "I may not get there with you" tradition that's been central to plenty of helpful, important, contradictory hip-hop rebels. On "Dreams," ST references borrowing some money from his brother to pay his bills. These are small, personal details, and they don't even need to be true to make their point: Blog success is not all that it seems.
R.E.B.E.L. also features some of in-house producer Block Beattaz's most inspired productions in quite some time: Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony meets soap-opera piano and a stiff reggae baseline on "Trill 2 Da Bone"; the Beastie Boys' "Intergalactic" slurring and squeaking in the background of "Space Jam." Motherfucking Skrillex slamming into the blurry beat of "Sunshine," and then fighting it out on a dubstep/noise-rap coda that tops Jay-Z's endless-in-a-good-way verse from "Who Gon' Stop Me." A sample of Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine" on posse cut/G-Side epilogue "Machine." As if it weren't already dynamic enough, the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache," pumps through "We Are the People" during its second half, as if it needed one more production flourish to underline ST's fiery verse.
G-Side's dissolution shows the limits of the anti-major label, DIY rap philosophy. Or at least, the wall it inevitably hits, the blow to one's ego it inflicts, and the way it can dissolve even a dedicated duo of friends like ST 2 Lettaz and Yung Clova. Closing track "Machine," featuring S.L.A.S.H., Kristmas, and Zilla, outlines G-Side's come-up with very G-Side-like modesty ("Took my criminal sense and used it"), their bittersweet split, and ST's hardheaded desire to keep going it alone. He sounds like he's got nothing to lose. And in a way, he doesn't. R.E.B.E.L. is both a last gasp and the start of something new.