Happy 15th Anniversary to Hieroglyphics’ second studio album Full Circle, originally released October 7, 2003.
To properly absorb the huge amount of excellent music that has spawned from the mighty Hieroglyphics camp requires setting aside serious time. It can be an overwhelming experience, but an utterly satisfying one. There are the certified classics, like I Wish My Brother George Was Here (1991) and No Need for Alarm (1993) by de facto Hiero leader Del the Funky Homosapien, the first Souls of Mischief album, 93 'til Infinity (1993), and Casual’s debut Fear Itself (1994), among several others. Then there are the many deep cuts, solo albums, offshoots and collaborative projects, too many of them to list here, but almost all of them of a very high standard.
Some of the finest Hieroglyphics moments come when the Bay Area bred collective regroups for full-blown crew albums, like on another genuine classic, 1998’s 3rd Eye Vision. There aren’t many other sizable congregations of emcees in hip-hop that are as proficient as Hieroglyphics at spitting line after line of sophisticated rhyme schemes and one-upmanship, over beats that are quintessentially California hip-hop, but still just as hard-hitting as the finest east coast boom bap. Full Circle, released 15 years ago this week, gave us more of what began on 3rd Eye Vision, and features some of their best work.
After a brief intro, the album begins with a complex lyrical attack in the form of “Fantasy Island,” and hardly pauses for breath for the proceeding 14 tracks. Sometimes, when a rapper packs too much dense wordplay into their music it can feel like overkill and hard for the listener to keep up. Elsewhere in 2003, the same year Full Circle came out, rappers like Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif and others, often associated with the Def Jux label, were writing verses that spilled over the brim with wordage. Their music was undoubtedly excellent, but would soon face a bit of a backlash for being perhaps over-crowded and complicated.
It’s here where the differences are profoundly discerned between the intense, cerebral rappers and the California hip-hop of groups like Freestyle Fellowship, Ugly Duckling, Jurassic 5 and Hieroglyphics. Maybe it is the weather or the abundance of open space, but there’s definitely something unique about west coast indie rap that allows it to be complex and deep, but at the same time nimble, breathable and not at all claustrophobic.
That’s why an album like Full Circle can go all out with long, often high-speed verses back and forth between rappers, without leaving the listener feeling fatigued. Pep Love, all four members of Souls of Mischief (Opio, Tajai, Phesto, and A-Plus) and, of course, Del the Funky Homosapien, unload rapid-fire lyrics with precision, covering all the typical subject matter you’d expect: woman trouble, lots of bragging, the state of the music industry (spoiler alert: they aren’t happy about it).
That said, anyone who does need a break from the frenetic pace gets it with calmer moments like “Make Your Move,” one of two tracks on Full Circle featuring the soulful songstress Goapele. There are also thought-provoking songs like “Maggie May (R.I.P. Faith),” detailing the awful impact of drugs on a fictional character that was no doubt based on the all-too-real life experiences of Phesto, Del the Funky Homosapien and Opio, who each write vivid and harrowing verses.
Production-wise, the beats on Full Circle don’t always go as smoothly with the vocals as they did on 3rd Eye Vision. Handled primarily by Domino, Casual and A-Plus, it’s a shift from their classic sound towards a more spacey, keyboard-driven style, possibly a reflection of what was happening in commercial rap in the early aughts. It works though, and it’s executed with a far higher level of musicianship than lesser producers who at the time were desperate to recreate the Timbaland and Neptunes influenced sounds.
Ten long years would pass from the time that Full Circle dropped and the next crew album, 2013’s The Kitchen, arrived. Del the Funky Homosapien, Souls of Mischief and the rest of the collective are still releasing excellent music today, frequently in collaboration with each other. Hieroglyphics now stand alongside Freestyle Fellowship and the extended Project Blowed family as pretty much the only two west coast indie rap dynasties that have managed to stay relevant for decades since, and there’s hopefully still a lot more to come.