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As soon as I returned home from a short road trip for work, I received a text from my older brother, alerting me that one of the greatest duos in the history of hip-hop had just released a new LP. My brother happens to be the one of the biggest Smif-N-Wessun fans on the planet and considers their 1995 debut Dah Shinnin’ one of his all-time favorite rap albums. My response was, “If I had known, the album would have made the perfect road trip listen on my I-95 trip from Philadelphia to Baltimore.” Luckily, I only had about two days of rest before driving back, and I figured I’d wait so I could give the rap legends my undivided attention in the car. I figured the veteran rhyme team deserved as much, after providing an extensive and stellar music catalog comprised of five LPs, an EP and a long list of prolific features.
Fully prepped for my individual listening party, I had barely cleared the Sunday evening Baltimore City church traffic, before Tek, Steele, 9th Wonder and the Soul Council had me in deep intrigue about the direction of The All. For starters, the intro entitled “The Education of Smif-N-Wessun” builds up with the theatrics of a 1970s Willie Hutch composition, allowing a soul sample to resonate before allowing the drums to accentuate the delivery of some grown man bars, as the duo asserts, “The discography read like an anthology / The education of Smif-N-Wessun is not a comedy / ain’t no apologies, fabrications or fallacies / follow the protocol / dedication of policy.” With the vintage head-nodding and soul-steering supplied by longtime collaborators 9th Wonder and the Soul Council, Tek and Steele seem to effortlessly articulate their well-earned spot within the class of rap’s elite and defend the relevance of their current message.
On “Testify,” Smif-N-Wessun address one of music’s aging dilemmas, whereby artists who achieve success often face scrutiny from fervent listeners who attempt to pigeonhole artists’ continual development. “They said take ‘em back to Dah Shinin’ / but they don’t know the shape that my mind’s in / the game’s different and my man’s gone / in any song I put a verse on.”
As I made my way through the suburbs of northeast Maryland with the Soul Council’s funk bumping through the speakers, I was pleasantly surprised to discern the voice of another of my all-time favorite emcees, Raekwon. Wu-Tang’s lyrical MasterChef joins the duo for a legend’s reunion to add some introspection to the already reflective lyrics of “Dreamland.”
Musiq Soulchild and Rapsody add star power to the LP for the feel-good song “Ocean Drive.” Rapsody’s refreshing femininity adds spice to Smif-N-Wessun’s signature recipe of hardcore lyrics with her playful rhymes, “Right at Ocean Drive out west like Bonanza / Got a little junk in my trunk, Fred Sanford / That's a ghost whip, Kiki drive / Kiki don't love you but I do, haah / In the lane like Ben, goin' twenty-five / with my boo-boo thang on Ocean Drive, ride.”
For “Let it Go,” 9th Wonder takes the reins as Steele makes another compelling case for how underrated he is as a skilled lyricist, rhyming, “I walk around town with the crown, I'm a king / Booth or stage on my square, like a fighter in a ring / Tyson was Price, I’m Mic Mayweather / These rappers is nice, I write way better.” 9th Wonder’s widely acknowledged as having one of the highest musical IQs in hip-hop and he proves it here by crafting a beat that sonically pays homage to The Beatminerz for a percussion-heavy reminder of the original Boot Camp Clik sound circa 1995. Similarly, “Illusions” provides a minimalist backdrop with a “boom bap” style drum pattern.
The aptly titled The All is well rounded, remaining true to the group’s hardcore brand, which rallies another star-studded collabo in “Let Me Tell Ya” produced by Nottz and featuring Rick Ross. “Stahfallah” flips the coin for a more spiritual perspective, while “Letter 4 U” adds a personal touch.
For fans who expected the legendary group to simply rehash their earlier works, The All provides the next best thing, as Smif-N-Wessun stick to their artistic core with a matured and astute perspective on the full gamut of life’s experiences since they formally arrived on the scene two-and-a-half decades ago.
I was glad to have a solid LP on my packing list, free of album fillers, for a short road trip, and intend to add The All to my vinyl collection. Here’s to another adult contemporary rap album, which is age-appropriate in its reflections of the ‘90s without succumbing to excessive nostalgia and sentimentality.
Notable Tracks: "Dreamland" | “Illusions” | "Let It Go" | “Ocean Drive”