Artist: Pete Rock
Album: The Surviving Elements
Label: BBE / Rapster
Rating: 7 / 10
Instrumental albums in hip-hop are not really as few-and-far-between as many would think, as a great deal of albums and singles do also have an accompanying instrumental release, mainly as an aid for club and radio DJ’s. However, as the target audience for these instrumentals is the DJ, most are only pressed up on vinyl (and in limited quantities at that), and the average Joe is unlikely to come across them at his local Best Buy or the like. There is also the issue of how listenable one of these albums is for the average rap aficionado; if you strip the vocals away from the vast majority of hip-hop tracks, past or present, you are left with a fairly repetitive beat that most would likely find pretty boring to listen to for 4 or more minutes.
Once in a while, however, a skilled producer will put his hand to the machines and a solid product will emerge, engaging and complex enough to stand on it’s own without help from vocal accompaniment. As mentioned above, to release a ‘stand alone’ instrumental album is a rarity in today’s world, and it takes a skilled producer to successfully pull off such a feat. Pete Rock did it once, to much critical acclaim, with 2001’s “Petestrumentals”, a collection of 11 classic, unreleased Soul Brother beats from 1990-95, with 5 MC tracks thrown in for good measure. What grabbed many people about the tracks was their depth and musicality; almost as though they had been conceived from the start as entire songs on their own, with no need of MC assistance. As far as complexity of production, the album was well above most other material being released around the same time; Pete’s sample-heavy, organic style sounding almost timeless in a sea of dime-a-dozen digital productions.
Four years later, we are presented with another such outing from the Chocolate Boy Wonder, “The Surviving Elements”, and immediately a few things stand out. All of these tracks were recorded over a short period of time, and are billed as being “from the “Soul Survivor II” sessions”. Also, unlike the previous album, there are no MC tracks present on this recording.
It took me quite a few spins to work out a review for this album; Pete Rock is one of my favorite producers of all time, but a review should look at an album impartially, with a critical eye, no matter what personal preferences the reviewer may have. Most people who are familiar with “Petestrumentals” will probably notice something very shortly into this album: whereas the instrumentals off that endeavour sound like they were constructed to stand by themselves, there is something lacking in the depth of the tracks on this release. Perhaps the descriptor “from the “Soul Survivor II” sessions” offers a clue: if indeed these are merely “excess” tracks Pete programmed but did not use for the album, then it explains the reason why they sound like they are lacking something when listening to them. Not to say they are unpleasant to listen to, but they have difficulty standing on their own; whereas on the first album the instrumentals drew you in and wrapped you in lovely soundscapes, these tracks are begging for MC (or DJ) assistance. It’s not so bad for the first 2 minutes or so of each track, but as they play through, one gets a feel that they were produced in a much more formulaic way than their predecessors. One wonders, had BBE and Rapster had the budget, if Soul Survivor II could have been released as a double album, because any of these tracks would do even the pickiest of MC’s justice.
That being said, the production is superb. Most anything Pete touches usually turns out very listenable, and the production is still rather more complex than the majority of beats coming out of the past year. ‘You Remind Me’, the first track on the disc, uses a lovely Al Green sample properly (he doesn’t sound like a chipmunk) over a nice warbly bassline with the traditional horn stabs interspersed throughout. ‘Flying’, track six, has a lovely, ethereal sound to it, as the title would have you believe; a sparse drum beat with some airy woodwind-sounding synths and a rich bassline. ‘Placebo’ gives us a nice raunchy bassline punctuated with piano stabs over an uptempo, clap-heavy drum beat.
For any failings it may have, it is certainly a pleasant album to listen to, just under different circumstances than the first; whereas “Petestrumentals” is something to devote one’s full attention to, this album is what you might put on in the morning with breakfast while reading the paper, in the bedroom with the lady, at work, or while having drinks (or other activities) with the gang. Better “background” music than the first album, it has a niche all it’s own, and will undoubtedly provide fresh fodder for battle DJ’s and mixtape artists for a while to come. Overall a solid effort, but not quite on the same level as the original.