Apollo Brown & Joell Ortiz
Mello Music Group
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It’s been some time since I’ve listened to a hip-hop album that made me want to thank the emcee and producer for sharing their artistry, but this was my initial sentiment after listening to the newest installment of the life and times of Joell Ortiz, orchestrated by Apollo Brown. Over the last decade and a half, Ortiz has built a reputation as one of the premier wordsmiths in hip-hop, and simultaneously, rappers have pretty much formed a line outside of Brown’s studio, in the hopes of seizing the opportunity for his blue-chip production to bring their lyrics to life. The news of this collaboration has been one of the most anticipated musical events of the year for fiends of hardcore hip-hop, but the release stands to exceed expectations.
The two highly skilled technicians excel at their respective crafts and gel along the lines of musical chemistry that we’ve seen from the best producer/emcee collaboration albums in recent years—think Buckshot and 9th Wonder’s Chemistry (2005), Freeway and Jake One’s Stimulus Package (2010), or Cormega and Large Professor’s Mega Philosophy (2014).
Surprisingly, it’s not merely Ortiz’s hard rhymes or Brown’s soulful soundscapes that make Mona Lisa such a standout project. Clocking in at a concise 36 minutes, the album follows the fluid concept of an established rapper narrating his reflections on life before stardom arrived while articulating his current struggles. Seems simple, but Ortiz goes deeper than most.
For example, he expresses his phobia of hospitals on “That Place” by sharing two stressful ER visits that take place on the opposite side of the life spectrum. In the first verse, his close friend is rushed to the hospital after suffering gunshot wounds, and in the second, Ortiz details his son’s breeched birth delivery. The two verses are stitched together with his hook “I swear to God I hate the hospital / I mean no disrespect to what the nurses and the doctors do / sometimes y’all make a miracle appear from the impossible / but when my people there / getting outta there’s an obstacle.” Brown’s melancholy beats transform the song into one of the year’s more heart-wrenching and compelling novellas.
The album is anchored by Ortiz taking you on trips down memory lane, which isn’t a particularly unique thematic approach, but his vivid narratives are impressively paced by a compound writing structure and bolstered by Brown’s revered sonic arsenal. The album’s eleven tracks transport you directly into the Cooper Park Houses of Brooklyn, inspiring a deeper level of introspection, which easily surpasses the average emcee’s skill set.
On “Grace of God,” Ortiz cleverly scripts his youth around an urban drama film scheme, reflecting, “I’m just a product of where the youngins move product / we all believe in God, but we look up to the Shottas / iron in my goose, test my pride I’ll let it loose / we Boyz n the Hood that watch Menace II Society and Juice.”
“My Block” is a similar example of top-notch lyricism over superlative production, along with the mini-Slaughterhouse reunion “Timberlan’d Up” featuring Royce Da 5’9”, which serves as a rallying cry for fans who forever argue the superiority of ‘90s era boom-bap.
Mona Lisa scores as an aptly titled work of superior artistry by two masters of their individual crafts. An instant “must-have” for any hip-hop aficionado, hopefully this is merely the first volume of many more to come from this dynamic duo who could dramatically expand the growing genre of thirty-and-over hip-hop.
Notable Tracks: “Come Back Home” | “Grace of God” | “My Block” | “That Place” | “Timberlan’d Up”