It’s hard to get the individual credit you deserve when you’re a member of an incredible group. Sadly, this is the story for the frontman of Philadelphia’s 5th Dynasty, The Roots. Although his name may frequently be mentioned as a top tier emcee among hip-hop connoisseurs, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter’s lack of a solo catalog displaces him from his rightful position in hip-hop’s hierarchy.
The oversight of South Philly’s Bad Lieutenant’s lyrical ascension not becoming one of the game’s full-fledged premier generals has not gone without any positive effect though. Some of hip-hop’s most quotable moments in the last decade have been Black Thought’s lyrical destruction showcased across all of his features and freestyles. The huge boulder on Thought’s shoulders over time has morphed to give the already highly skilled lyricist an alter-ego with the ferociousness of a comic book supervillain.
Along his path, Thought has overshadowed plenty of highly regarded emcees, whose features lay as wreckage to prove his supremacy of wordplay. Just last year, for example, Wu-Tang swordsman Method Man was forced to summon the best rhymes saved in his iPhone, to merely survive a freestyle collaboration with Illadelph’s finest. Not to mention that Black Thought’s epic 10-minute studio session with Funkmaster Flex is already being regarded as a cultural shifter.
Producer extraordinaire 9th Wonder, on the other hand, parted ways from his group Little Brother almost a decade ago, after a groundbreaking run in the early 2000s. The soulful, southern production that he has supplied to big-name and underground artists alike has made him one of the most consistent hitmen for hire throughout the industry, and he has been credited as being a catalyst for hip-hop’s return to blending elements of older African-American musical traditions.
This epic extended-play collaboration between Black Thought and 9th Wonder sets out to give the kids their greatest lesson on why hip-hop has always been distinct from other genres in that it is one of the purest forms of cultural expression. On the EP’s opening track “Twofifteen,” Black Thought wastes no time in jumping into “edutainment” mode, lyrically painting a picture of the richness of his beloved Philadelphia as he experienced it growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The emcee-producer duo set the tone that Streams of Thought is about to take listeners on a brief but potent journey as Thought imparts jewels he received at the foot of his elders as a youngster: “My granddaddy sported plaid Donny Hathaway's / hustlin' for everything we had 'til he passed away / when I would ask about what path to take / he used to laugh and say, "No man is an island but I'm a castaway.”
Next, the two veterans of their respected crafts appear to spar with one another over the song “9th vs Thought,” solidifying their sports at the top of their games. Over the perfect soundscape, Thought again proves what many have known for years now. Namely, that his lyricism is on another plane. He reasserts this fact astoundingly with rhymes like, “Real rapture in the form of a living man /I don't give a damn, not a mortal could test me / see, I don't get examed / I'm a high priest and a wild beast / once warrior, now chief—the mouthpiece of the foul East.”
“Dostoyevsky” is arguably the album’s lyrical apex among tough competition and welcomes the EP’s first special guest appearance. Jamla Records artist Rapsody returns Black Thought’s favor of appearing on her 2017 gem Laila’s Wisdom. Establishing herself as a premier lyricist in her own right, 9th Wonder’s fellow North Carolina native holds her own, better than most, but is still outgunned by the owner of rap’s largest verbal arsenal. Mr. Trotter delivers what are by far some of the most quotable bars of 2018 thus far, and ends his dissertation quite simply, “If every man's a temple, the circumstance is simple / so to be transcendental, I do enhance the mental / this is elder statesmen conversation / take a look into them books from down in the basement.”
Frequent collaborator Styles P also stops in for “Making a Murderer,” 9th Wonder’s most up-tempo of the four out of five tracks he contributed. Doing more than merely surviving, Styles challenges Black Thought’s gauntlet showing his own appetite for destruction with impressive rhymes of his own like, “Mi amore, if you a Moor / if I ever go to war it's the kids I do it for / I eat emcees they can send me a few of yours / and by a few I mean way more than two / you can times that by twenty and tell 'em to come through / and watch them get beat like African drums do.”
“Thank You,” the epilogue of the short novella, sees 9th Wonder tag in Khrysis to close out the project. With another ode to his hometown which holds rich artistic and cultural traditions, Black Thought offers his salutations after just four preceding songs.
Clearly the most skilled lyricist on the planet, Black Thought’s mind-blowing array of weaponry makes it hard to distinguish what is the deadliest of his arsenal: wordplay, message, vocabulary, or delivery. Meanwhile, 9th Wonder proves that he is still very much relevant among modern beatsmiths.
This short offering is an example of hip-hop’s many intriguing possibilities, offering fans the opportunity to ponder what similar collaborative projects by premier artists could have achieved in different eras. Like if Chuck D and Marley Marl had made an album together in 1991, for example. The major critique is that what appears to be the release of several short volumes of songs was not combined to make a single LP. Regardless, I don’t think Black Thought’s level of lyricism will be surpassed anytime soon, and even a brief offering of “old-fashioned” hip-hop transcends 95% of the contemporary rap music that fans are left to contend with these days.
Notable Tracks: "9th vs. Thought" | “Dostoyevsky” | “Twofifteen”