Happy 15th Anniversary to Akrobatik’s debut album Balance, originally released May 20, 2003.
Hip-Hop records during the early ’00s presented life in binary terms, with mainstream rappers often possessing an “all or nothing” vision of the world. Every single was an alcohol-drenched, weed-infused Roman orgy, or it was a vision of fatalistic violence. There was very little middle ground.
When Jared “Akrobatik” Bridgeman viewed a realm of hip-hop so far out of whack, he recorded an album that portrayed the world as he saw it, detailing both the good and the bad that life can offer. He released Balance, his debut album, 15 years ago, after releasing critically acclaimed singles and EPs, while helping to revitalize the Boston-based hip-hop scene. Balance presents a strong vision for the direction of hip-hop music, which involves achieving equilibrium. As he eloquently states on the title track’s hook, artists must “maintain balance or you might fall off.”
A central aspect of the album is that Akrobatik never lets himself off the hook. He’s adept at illustrating his own foibles and blind-spots. On the album’s first single, the aptly titled “Hypocrite,” he describes his imperfections, acknowledging that he tries to live his best life, but isn’t always successful.
“Remind My Soul,” the album’s second single, shows a deeper level of introspection, as Akrobatik laments the sad state of self-esteem and respect within the Black community. He searches for ways to inspire others to improve their lives. Over a guitar-based track by Illmind, he raps, “My elders all feel the same there's no bravery / We’re supposed to fight for freedom not just the end of slavery / Are we too selfish to even bless the kids with jewels/ So our youth don't get played out for fools?”
“Front Steps” depicts the balance in life by depicting a neighborhood in Boston as seen from a front stoop during a hot summer day. Over a chill track produced by DJ Sense, Akrobatik describes taking in the day with his friends, enjoying himself while drinking a brew and smoking a little weed, all while remaining aware of those residents who have fallen on hard times and don’t have it as good as he does.
Akrobatik further demonstrates his story-telling ability on “Cooler Heads,” as he navigates a potentially dangerous situation at one of his concerts. In the midst of the show, making “50 people feel like 50,000,” a crew of belligerent aspiring rappers attempts to rush the stage and sabotage the performance. Rather than escalate the situation physically, Akrobatik displays maturity by attempting to defuse the situation through his words, rapping, “But if I throw a punch and let this idiot push me / His man will probably pull out the tool just like a pussy / Then it’s good people getting stabbed and shot, right? /All because some thirsty n***as wanted the spotlight.” In the end, cooler heads do indeed prevail and karma strikes back at the collection of party-crashers.
Some of Balance’s best moments come when Akrobatik dedicates himself to displaying his skills. “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” is a late ’80s/early ’90s throwback “fast rap” jam, with Ak kicking two and a half minutes of straight lyrical heat: three verses and no real hook and chorus. The beat, provided by Edan, is perfect in its simplicity, as Akrobatik goes for broke over a crispy drum track and a funky horn, dropping lines like, “I bring the facts to the masses to slay their ignorant asses / Never had to bury adversaries under the Earth/ ’Cause they cower to their tombs at the word of my birth.”
Akrobatik uses this classic aesthetic on most of his displays of verbal acumen throughout the album. He “takes it back to ’86” on “The Bone Crusher,” an ode to snapping femurs and cracking clavicles. Over some bare-bones (pun intended?) Kraftwerk-fueled electronic-funk produced by DJ Therapy, Ak leaves a boatload of shattered skeletons in his wake, rapping, “The lessons of the game, they need to go back and learn ’em / Before Ak burn ’em and leave ’em with a cracked sternum / You want battle scars? Fuck with me, you're gonna earn ’em / I guarantee you leave the party last in a body cast.”
“Wreck Dem” sees Akrobatik team up with Mr. Lif, his fellow Boston-born homie and the other rhyming half of the crew The Perceptionists. The crew had yet to record a full album, but showed amazing chemistry on their previous collaborations. Akrobatik himself produced the track, a mid-tempo keyboard-driven creation, and he and Lif conduct a clinic on lyrical delivery and cadence. Akrobatik places emcees through the ringer, rapping, “You'll have to ring the sweat out your pores when you’re done with these verbal calisthenics / You could try to beef your ass up with Cyrogenics.” Meanwhile, Lif contends that he’s “known to swell glands of clans and crews / Able to communicate with bands of wolves.”
One constant throughout Balance is Akrobatik’s nuanced portrayal of women in his rhymes. He eschews the “bitches/queens” dichotomy that is found in so much male-dominated popular culture, in favor of presenting well-rounded members of the opposite sex. In this area, he’s again adept at bringing attention to his own imperfections.
“Woman II” is the (obvious) sequel to “Woman,” an acclaimed track from a 12” Ak released. The song picks up right where the previous installment left off, presenting a young and dumb Akrobatik who’s learned nothing from his previous experience. He falls in lust with the next girl he sets his eyes on, and proceeds to sabotage a meaningful relationship by trying to move too fast. He later regrets only seeking her body rather than appreciating her mind.
“Limelight” serves as an updated version of songs like MC Lyte’s “Not Wit a Dealer” or LL Cool J’s “Fast Peg.” Akrobatik presents the story of a woman who gets caught up living the glamorous life as the arm candy to a street dealer. However, he takes great pain not to present her as a one-dimensional character, explaining her motivations for the decisions that she made in life, as it comes to a tragic end.
Ak ends Balance exploring the concept of the passage of time, in both the literal and figurative sense. On the song “Time,” he reflects on it as an abstract concept, and how it shapes our lives and the actions that we take. On “Here and Now,” he delves into his own origins as a young man and emcee, detailing all the steps he’s taken to get to the point where he released his first solo album. He makes sure to note the presence of strong women in his life who were integral to his upbringing. For both songs, the tracks are more mellow and melodic, ideal for the contemplative nature of his rhymes.
Akrobatik has continued his career successfully. He’s released a few albums as a solo artist and two as a member of The Perceptionists. Throughout all of his discography, he has presented the balance in his content that he pledged to maintain on this first album. Not many emcees have nurtured the level of consistency and conviction that Akrobatik displayed on Balance and has maintained throughout his career.