REVIEW: The Feenom Circle – Souled Separately

Souled Separately

Artist: The Feenom Circle

Album: Souled Separately

Label: Melatone

Rating: 7 / 10

Reviewer: A to the L

Despite its reputation as the centre of the universe for gangsta rap, under the surface, the West Coast currently seems to be the hotspot for dope underground talent. In the last few years we’ve seen Xzibit and Dilated make their way to mainstream success, chalking up a success for West Coast “lyricists” as they went. The next wave is already beginning to crash onto shore, with hot releases from LA Symphony, Gershwin BLX, and Himalayan Project already getting high marks in this very reviews section. Now its the turn of San Fran’s Feenom Circle to make the step up, with the release of their second EP, “Souled Separately”.

Feenom’s story is one that is probably being replayed at college campuses and schools the world over. One emcee meets another, they vibe for a while, and start to make some recordings. Sooner or later, another head finds his way into the mix, and a cohesive group is formed. In this case, it was Tope and Side B who originally worked together, eventually hooking up with Rsun in 1994. Using a small bedroom in Frisco as both an office and a recording studio, their independent label, Melatone released “Prescriptions”, their first EP in 1998, and managed to shift 2000 units locally, with no distribution. Building on this success, “Souled Separately” is the next step…

…and the first impression is pretty good. The opening cut ‘Nothing Yet’ features an impressive array of layered jazz samples and echoing horns, and comes off like a cross between Black Sheep, Pharcyde, and De La Soul. A nice lazy-on-a-summer-day way to fall into the album.

‘Masters Too’ continues to expand on this laidback vibe… some intensely spiritual lyrics, dropped over a buttery piano loop which has just enough kick to avoid a “lounge music description”. It’s the lyrics though that had me rewinding this – its sounds almost like you’re overhearing a normal conversation between the emcees and the Almighty – they drop just enough into the lyrics to keep you hooked, without giving away too much information, and the effect is to keep listening to find out what they’re gonna say next…

“I never walk around this place like somebody owes me something
Plant the seeds of hard work, so I can grow me something
When the harvest season comes man, I’m reaping what I sow
And when the taxman comes around man, I pay back what I owe
Several suicide attempts on my spirit
Drunkenly on this edge, but heard your voice and didn’t fear it.”

‘Circulation’ has a much harder edge and is a total departure from the vibes of the previous tracks. Here a simple bounce track rolls along in the background as the emcees spit… and spit… and SPIT, pausing only to count each other in on a (fairly uninspired) 1-2, 1-2 chorus. As a way of showcasing the trio’s flows and skills it works, but it just doesn’t have that little bit extra to make it truly stand out.

The next couple of tracks, ‘I Ain’t Askin’ and ‘Tunnel Vision’ continue along the “harder” path laid by ‘Circulation’. The former is a fairly standard slow paced beat, that maintains its hard edge due to the heavy snare kick, and is basically a little trip through loves won and lost, and the emotional roller coaster than the big L word sends us on. ‘Tunnel Vision’ starts off with an acapella poem which quickly morphs into a beat that would sound at home on a Cannibal Ox record. Its a stop-start stutterfest, with electronic effects squirting all over the place, which strangely (for me, the self-proclaimed Can Ox-hater) is quite addictive. Unfortunately it fades out much to early, leaving me feeling confused and guilty.

The EP continues with ‘Borrowed Time’, an extremely dark, and almost depressing ode to the benefits of suicide. Nah, I’m bugging… but this track is just a checklist of miserable subject matter – pain gets namechecked on here a lot, comparisons to blind and crippled people are thrown up, and the cold beat was almost enough to have me reaching for the Prozac. Lighten up a little fellas – things aren’t THAT bad surely?

The last couple of cuts, thankfully lift the mood a little – ‘Misunderstanding’ shows evidence of Bay Area roots, with its definite thump for the trunk. This has a definite old school feel, with its minimal stripped down sound, and bass heavy thud running throughout. ‘Days Go By’ meanwhile goes full circle, returning to the jazzy feel of the opener, and capturing a “live instrumention” feel in the process. Its Roots-ish influence is also demonstrated with its sing-song chorus – all very “Things Fall Apart”. For your bucks, you also get an uncredited bonus cut, which is more spoken word than actual Hiphop – basically a poem recited over an extremely blues-ish beat.

And that’s it. A strong release, and one which demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses this trio possess – they sound supremely confident rhyming over the jazzy beats of the opening and closing cuts, less so over the darker stuff. Its no surprise then that ‘Nothing Yet’, ‘Masters Too’, and ‘Days Go By’ are the strongest tracks on display and ultimately, the most enjoyable. Overall though, you can chalk this one up as another success for West Coast underground Hiphop. Nice one.

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