A disclaimer: This is NOT going to be an exclusive hip-hop blog. I don't have nearly the same dedication, time, or knowledge that most of the web's hip-hop writers do, and so I'll leave hip-hop journalism to them. You can check out my links or read HipHopDX or whatever for stuff, though I think I'll still review albums from time to time or give ups to deserving artists. I wanted to do something like a "Lost Classics" column in The Phoenix next year where I'd review somewhat forgotten gems from the 90s (think of work by members of groups like Freestyle Fellowship, D.I.T.C, etc.) and obscure releases from this decade, but I couldn't muster the will to fill out the application.
The real reason I care about writing this particular review, though, is that CYNE happened to be my gateway into hip-hop. I had listened to Mos Def and Talib Kweli's Black Star and Mos Def's Black on Both Sides before and loved them, but had I not stumbled across CYNE, I would probably still be that kid who loved no other rap albums besides Black Star and Black on Both Sides. Listening to their 2005 Evolution Fight pushed me forward into my backpacker phase. Fast forward to today, and thankfully now I'm that kid who mentions hip-hop just a little too often in regular conversation. In any case, onto CYNE's Starship Utopia released yesterday.
CYNE (acronym for Cultivate Your New Experience) is a group of four hip-hop musicians from Gainesville, Florida. Why should you care about CYNE any more than the thousands of other indie hip-hop groups with unfortunate names? For one, CYNE's music happens to be interestingly good, better than much of the "boringly" good music that the underground is often accused of being filled to the brim with. In other words, CYNE has a unique sound that you don't really hear too often, either in the underground or the mainstream. This is mainly because of the production work of Speck and Enoch, the group's two talented beatsmiths. I guess you could characterize their sound as electronic, but still keep the beats warm and groovy. That description doesn't really tell you anything, so here are some examples:
CYNE's two MCs, Cise Starr and Akin, also distinguish themselves favorably from the pack. Both hail from Ghana, and often make insightful allusions to Africa in their rhymes. They go far beyond the now-tried formula of rhyming about just how underground or anti-establishment they are, instead touching on themes of spirituality, family, and life. They also switch up their flows, relying on their delivery just as much as their lyrical content to keep listeners interested.
One of CYNE's best qualities, however, is how they cut extraneous bullshit from their albums, and Starship Utopia is no different. 11 tracks, 30 minutes, no skits. The album does not begin with an introduction, but a battle cry against corporate forces polluting hip-hop in "Kill The Music." Yeah, it's a somewhat tired theme at this point, but they touch upon other topics, and I really like how Akin and Cise Starr conclude their verses by realizing "it isn't dead" (I've always thought the whole "Hip Hop is Dead" phrase was kind've a misnomer). It is followed by the title track "Starship Utopia," a track layered with a beautiful soul sample where Akin and Cise Starr essentially establish why they rap:
“Sun top of glacier, but niggas need ice...!
What for? I seek more, reach for more
Niggas ask why, ‘Why you stargazin’ Jupiter?
Because Earth’s unalert, so far as a lover of sound
Black bastard, hypocrite, it hurt what my mind is
Zapped back to the past to chat with Bigger Thomas
Asked him why he did it, then zapped back to now
Now I’m hip-hoppin’ aboard in love with the sound"
Cise Starr and Akin go on to rap about the perils of prostitution ("Sex Tapes"), the Iraq War ("Six Shooter"), but I think they are at their best when they rap more about their personal issues. On "Loopholes," Akin declares:
“I slapbox with devils and speak to Gods,
Asking them questions like ‘do I need a job?’
Cuz a nigga got stressful time 9 to 5
I weather the migraine just to survive
got a chip on my shoulder for real
and you can tell when, this nigga smile with a smirk cuz it’s hell sent
Feeling I’m doing work for the devil, because I’ve got a bad back
but the wrath of a rebel see
Every day is like an episode, I replay it, I dig life like a retro DJ
Try to stay on top of things
so the raw uncut shit is what I sing
Believe it or not, I’m feeding off of experience
Experience is this, and it’s bliss because you’re hearing it”
(I apologize for any errors with the lyrics, I had to transcribe them myself)
While Akin and Cise Starr each deliver great performances throughout, at 11 tracks, this album is just too short for them to discuss issues at the same depth of CYNE's prior (and longer) Evolution Fight, which is the album's weak point. They also feature two tracks with guests Seven Star, Soarse Spoken, and Stres, and while their contributions are okay, they don't really add much either (except for the first guest spot on "Floatin," that's a dope verse). Speck and Enoch, however, bring the heat to each and every track. Their production seems to get better and better with every release, as they have overtly incorporated more soul and funk into their work than ever before while maintaining their slightly abstract electronic edge that serves to emphasize the two MCs' vocals.
In conclusion, this is a great album, probably one of the best of 2008 thus far. While the album could've been a bit longer, I'm glad to have a release that is packed with good music instead of a sprawling release stacked with filler. The beats also rock something hard. Still, if you are new to CYNE (and anyone reading this blog probably is), I would recommend picking up Evolution Fight first, and picking this up as a supplement. Amazingly, CYNE is due to drop another LP in June titled Pretty Dark Things, and if this is any indication, CYNE will have TWO contenders for some of the best records of 2008.