This Tuesday, Detroit hip-hop quartet Clear Soul Forces released their latest LP, Gold PP7s. As the choice of title suggests, playing video games is a beloved pastime for the emcees of Clear Soul Forces. As such, I find it helpful and entertaining to imagine each of them as individual characters in a classic fighting video game a la Mortal Kombat or The Way of the Exploding Fist. Allusions to (and even samples of) well-known video games figure prominently in the sonic landscape of Gold PP7s. Hip-hop heads who played legendary titles like Street Fighter, Super Smash Bros., Final Fantasy, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, Halo, Marvel v. Capcom and of course the James Bond series will find their favorite games represented on Gold PP7s. Producer/rapper Ilajide begins the album by flipping the “select character” music from Street Fighter 2 and concludes it by sampling the “kill” music from the iconic Goldeneye 007. “I can’t speak for everyone else, but I was definitely a nerd”, Ilajide told Respect Magazine‘s Stephen Kearse. “When everyone else was outside playing, I was inside on the video games”.
But the four cerebral, quick-witted Detroit emcees composing Clear Soul Forces–the aforementioned Ilajide, E-Fav, Noveliss and L.A.Z.–are worthy contenders in their own lyrical fighting game. Each possesses his own moves, his own style, his own timbre and his own linguistic flourishes. They trade knockout rhymes and swift punchlines with each other, endeavoring to outshine everyone else on the track. That’s the spirit encapsulated in “Sparring Session” (“It’s not a cipher/This is a sparring session”), an effectual showcase of each emcee’s agility, flow, wit and capacity for figuration. One could perhaps argue that Noveliss “wins” on ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’, or that E-Fav emerges victorious on the album’s first single, ‘Ain’t Playin‘. In the grand, incendiary scheme of Gold PP7s, though, Clear Soul Forces finds strength in unity, staging a feisty attack on the “bad guys”–commercial rap, inundated with materialism, disposable hooks and uninspiring lyrics. They’re not at all reserved about their opinions of commercial rap, and “War Games” wholly exemplifies this, concluding with Noveliss’s hilarious freestyle impersonation of a mainstream molly and bottle-popping Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As was the case on the previous Clear Soul Forces LP, Detroit Revolution(s), there’s no shortage of flow on Gold PP7s. This is certain; CSF’s rhymers are already renowned for their capacities to rattle off effortless streams of scintillating verse. The delightful, easy interplay (reminiscent of Method and Red, two of their heroes) which catapulted Clear Soul Forces towards the mainstream consciousness is equally present here, highlighted especially on the Tribe-referencing “Beats, Rhymes & Life”. But beneath the Detroit rappers’ rapid-fire deliveries are a wealth of surprising, MF Doom-like allusions and Eminem-sharp barbs. Gold PP7s is rife with focused, provocative attacks on commercial rap, and as such, it achieves a greater level of cohesion than its immediate predecessor.
Self-proclaimed nerd Ilajide handles the production on eleven of the album’s fifteen tracks (this excludes bonus tracks), getting additional help from L.A.’s Dibiase and fellow Michiganders Illingsworth and Nameless, who produced “Keep it Moving” on Detroit Revolution(s). Gold PP7s illuminates Ilajide’s development as a producer; standout joints like the Street Fighter-sampling opener, “Continue” and “Ninja Rap”, an impeccably-layered piece of Flying Lotus-esque 8-bit futurism, allow him to carve his own initials into Detroit’s hip-hop history with a healthy dose of his own boom-bap. He’s clearly a student of Detroit legends Dilla and Black Milk, but he’s not a teacher’s pet. The album is busy with sound bytes from video games and hip-hop icons. Ilajide samples Redman on “Ain’t Playin'” and flips Digital Underground on “Freq Freq”, while L.A.Z. gives Slum Village a shout-out on “Eve” and Nameless adopts the intro to Little Brother’s “The Getup” for “Unlimited Bounce”. It isn’t a terribly diverse record, but its production is deliberate and effective. And 10,000,000 points for Ilajide for appending Allen Iverson’s “talking about practice” diatribe to “Freq Freq”.
An initial listen to Gold PP7s will leave hip-hop heads drooling, but the album is so technically sound, its production so consistent and its lyrical content so universally solid that multiple plays of the album are needed to truly access it. At times,the emcees of Clear Soul Forces expel such a staggering amount of vocal output that some songs can seem dense and some verses can seem difficult to parse through (“Sparring Session”). Gold PP7s refuses to slow down for anyone, and consistent bars are emphasized far more than memorable hooks.
The Gold PP7 is the ultimate firearm in the James Bond series, a near-impossible-to-acquire, mystical firearm that guarantees a kill should its gold-plated bullet find a home in an enemy’s flesh. Clear Soul Forces have provided a fresh take on James Bond‘s deadliest weapon–it’s a one-shot kill in its own right, but it gets deadlier with each listen. Gold PP7s is unquestionably one of 2013’s most compelling releases; Clear Soul Forces have, all of a sudden, become the flagship lyricists of Detroit.