Artist: Phoenix Orion
Album: Secret Wars
Label: Sci Phi Recordings
Rating: 3 / 10
Science fiction. The final frontier. This is the domain of millions of people, their continuing mission to push the boundaries of their imagination through the fantasy worlds they create. Fair enough.
But science fiction in hip hop? Despite what you may think, not a new concept ; the most famous example being Dan The Automator and Del The Funky Homosapien’s otherworldly masterpiece Deltron 3030 from a couple of years ago.
The latest artist to be on a sci-fi rap trip is oddball Brooklyn emcee Phoenix Orion, with his latest album “Secret Wars”, the followup to his 1999 album “Zimulated Experiencez”, which featured such titles as ‘Scanners’ and ‘Dead Men Don’t Download’. This new project is undertaken with a great deal of help from his crew Team Eloheem (posse sounds like something out of Power Rangers – not a good sign), and features their trademark fusion of hip hop and drum & bass styles.
However, it seems all is not good in the year 3080. And I’m not talking about the plot of the story. The intro to “Secret Wars” sets the unfortunate tone for the rest of the album – an “apocalyptic prophet” proceeds to wheeze through a Darth Vader voice synthesizer (available at your local store for $10 RRP!!!) about how “he will not rest until all life on Planet Earth is non existent!!” and how we should “abandon hope now”. It’s all very Flash Gordon.
When you get past the booming clichÃ© that is the introduction, you get to the real music, which sadly isn’t up to much. Opening cut ‘Enter The Portal’ has a beat which epitomises dryness, its cheap string sample failing to give the track any kind of atmosphere – and a lack of atmosphere is always disastrous for any album which attempts to tell any kind of story or paint a picture of a situation. On top of all this, the emceeing is sub par too. Sure enough, he flows pretty well, but lyrically he’s on a Wu-Tang Killa Bees-style quasi-mystical archaeologics-and-ebonics tip, mumbling about how he’ll “solve the riddle of the sphinx” and “smoke cannabis in papyrus”. And to confound the ineptness of this track, he’s hired a hypeman by name of Dandelion to scream slogans like “HAH!” and “YEAH SON!” in a Flavor-Flav-on-acid manner to accentuate the raps. Which is the equivalent of a waiter pouring urine over the rancid, mouldy bit of meat he’s just served you, to make it taste nicer. Apart from the 1950s sci-fi style being dropped for this track, it’s not a success, nor does it help the no doubt bemused listener to understand exactly what the whole idea behind the album is.
What follows does exactly the opposite of expanding on the theme, and is staggeringly pointless. Track three consists entirely of a recorded answering machine message from the album’s executive producer, where he really says nothing more than “yeah I had a listen to this new Phoenix shit, it’s off the hook.” What’s the deal here? Is anyone besides the artists themselves going to care what this guy thinks? Is this just a attempt to say “hey our shit is dope, because this guy says so”? Fair enough if you want to show off a “stamp of approval” in a Dilated-esque way, but it only works if it’s someone recognisable (like Guru for Dilated). But who is this Executive Producer? He could be Phoenix Orion’s dad for all we know. Baffling.
Back to the music then. Dandelion (WHAT!!) is back in full effect (YEAH!!) for the next track ‘Music’ Is (C’MON!!). He gets the looped crowd sound WAV file amped up before breaking into the hook of the track – “Music is a part of life, music was once everything, our music lives through every one, what our music does is show ya love” – which he yells in an infuriatingly monotonous way. The beat is once again totally lifeless, the drums sound very cheap and the only other major accompaniment is some synthesized bleeps which sound like they were created by Phoenix Orion holding his Game Boy up to the mic. The verses by the two main emcees on display are once again tired pseudo-futuristic apopalyptic nonsense in which nothing stands out and where nothing is particularly imaginative. The flat, bald sound of this album is already cemented firmly in place by this track, it will do very little else but cause listeners to suffer bouts of narcolepsy.
Oh, but it gets worse. For ‘Universal Lingo’, a hyperactive and extremely irritating character named Zoundwavez is roped in to drop what sounds like bad speed-reggae performed under the influence of too much alcohol. Along with him, somehow, Phoenix Orion manages to fit in that godawful Egyptian chant thing, some wayward sci-fi sound effects (probably again off the old Game Boy), some vocals by a Cookie Monster impersonator, and a headache-inducing My First Drum Machine rhythm. Reactions to “Secret Wars” are likely to be more along the lines of “Just what the hell is this?” than “This is wack”, although the latter will no doubt follow as the album plays out.
Perhaps worried that listeners may have been thrown off the course of the Team Eloheem voyage, Phoenix Orion throws on a skit named ‘Artificial Intelligence’ about how “DNA is really a program” etc, quickly followed by another skit consisting of phone calls about rampant cyborgs travelling through time and space, messages from the future, and other assorted clichÃ©s. Still, the album remains completely directionless and confusing.
The extreme blandness of the lyrics on Secret Wars are on full display on Scifidelity, the first time that the lame, bald fantasy sound effects and accompaniment is accompanied by a rhythm which sounds remotely drum & bass. And the topic of the track? The emcees are hacking into some mainframe to destroy some virus or something. They viciously lay into their enemy with lines like “you got no heart, you low tech, clone ass robot” and “reboot their virtual brain” to “project their cybernetic selves.” Sure.
The battle continues on ‘Microphone Chakrastones’, as the mic skills are pitted against the cyborgs. It’s not exactly a fascinating battle to watch, in fact, it’s dull as ditchwater. Once again, the material soaks up every single available science fiction clichÃ© and squeezes it back out again to full embarassing effect. What’s even more irritating is that he doesn’t even stick to his dumbass topic, he veers off into talking about Big L, Freaky Tah, gangstas and “wack emcees” before swaying back into animorphic armageddon and the like. The following skit tells us that Phoenix has to destroy the creatively named Master Control Program. His father (he’s calling from the future, dontcha know) says “May the forces be with you”. Notice how they made it plural to make it original? Clever.
And the battle commences on clunky drum & bass monstrosity ‘Man vs Machine’, with its truly horrible aspirin-required beat and corny synths. The vocals are all over the place, from god knows how many strangely voiced individuals, talking about circuitry, and laser beams, and fiberoptics, and a shitload more words they probably just threw in to sound intellectual, a la Kool Keith. Who wins the battle between Man and Machine? It’s hard to tell really, although the Machine seems to get pretty angry at the end. Anyway, it’s funny to hear a emcee seriously trying to diss a computer, so who cares who comes out on top.
The final track, the title track, is a 12 minute-long posse cut featuring an electronically warped Donald D among others. The beat is dry as the Kalahari, the emcees aren’t much better. A couple come out sounding decent, but a lyric like “Why try Team Eloheem and be victim of a fly-by with laser beams?” and “I’m the one who crashes your internet, incoming virus” aren’t going to, uh, fly. It’s like the whole of the album. Misguided, disorganised, uninteresting, unoriginal, cliched, silly and directionless. It even ends with a brain-crushingly cheesy semi-skit where Phoenix Orion melodramatically screams “NO! NO! NO! NOOOOOO!” after something sneers “I..AM..ALIVE!” at him. It’s not so much the icing on the cake as the poisoned icing on the steaming pile of malodorous cow dung.
This is a poor album. Don’t get me wrong, I support creativity in hip hop, a new direction and fresh ideas is exactly what it needs right now. However, this album is not what hip hop needs right now, it doesn’t get anywhere near doing its topic – which is already lacking a lot in imagination – justice. Phoenix Orion & Team Eloheem have tried to create a Space Odyssey, but have come out looking like a bunch of 12-year-olds trying to act out an episode of Battlestar Galactica. Not recommended.