Album: To This Union, A Sun Was Born
Label: Hyde Out
Rating: 9 / 10
Reviewer: A to the L
Substantial, a Brooklyn resident, originally from Maryland, is a throwback to the olden days of emceeing. Not only intent on raising the bar lyrically, he is hellbent on shining light back onto the often forgotten element of beatboxing. In today’s modern Hiphop landscape of MPC’s, MP3’s, and 20 G’s for 16 bars of cheese, its refreshing to see someone who’s more about the music for music’s sake, rather than the green.
Substantial is another emcee who has definitely paid his dues – from teaming up with Pack FM to open for Heltah Skeltah and Slick Rick, to winning various emcee battle tournaments, to featuring on the “Game Over 2” compilation alongside such luminaries as KRS, Kane, and Masta Ace – its plain to see that he has put in a lot of hard work. He’s also followed in the footsteps of UK emcee Funky DL, by being one of the few rappers to successfully forge a name for himself in Japan. In fact, this very album outsold albums from Ja-Rule, DMX, Jermaine Dupri, Faith Evans and Angie Stone last year in the far east, and now, with the imminent US release of “To This Union…”, Substantial is hoping to finally break into the home market…
After a short intro featuring a fairly standard beatbox, and a few shoutouts, the album kicks off with easily one of the hottest tracks I’ve heard in 2002. The beats on ‘Substance’ are just disgusting – produced by Nujabes, but owing a huge debt to DJ Premier, this is a supremely layered track which comes off as a cross between the theme to an old 70’s cop show, and a missing track from a Gang Starr LP. As for Substantial on the mic? Let’s just say that he rides the beat perfectly, flowing effortlessly over the snares, as he sends warning shots to other emcees in a “you know who you’re fucking with?” steelo. This is dope.
Now after such a hot opener it would be no surprise to find that the next few tracks would struggle to stand up to the high standard set by ‘Substance’, right? Wrong! ‘Cim’, ‘More Than A Game’, and ‘Somebody Stole My’ all impress in their own right. ‘Cim’ and ‘More Than A Game’ are both produced by Monorisick, with the former a fast paced ‘I Used To Love Her’-esque ode to the love of Substantial’s life. Who? Read the title backwards, sucka. ‘More Than A Game’ meanwhile, is another romp through Primo terrority, featuring a beat that Mr C. Martin himself could have hooked up, and improving on the basketball-is-rap blueprint laid down by Jurassic 5 on ‘The Game’. After the cinematic feel of the previous tracks, ‘Somebody Stole My’ is a much more sparse sound, dominated by a stuttering bassline and some stripped down drums, with Subs rallying against thieves and biters, as he busts some heads to get back a book of rhymes.
‘If I Was Your Mic’ is a laidback track, with the subject matter being exactly what the title suggests. (Think Nas’ ‘I Gave You Power’, and KRS-One’s ‘I Can’t Wake Up’ for similar rapper-speaks-from-inanimate-object’s-point-of-view tracks.) It features a lazy guitar groove and carries a live instrumentation feel. To be honest, although the lyrics are on point, after the rough and rugged feel of the previous tracks, I felt that this track was a little out of place. But then where I might normally take a half-mark off for this, in this case I have to forget about it. The reason? Well, at the end of the album, there’s a fabulous jazz remix of this joint by DJ Kiyo, which improves upon the original.
As the album continues, its extremely hard to find a fault. ‘Home Sweet Home’, an ode to Maryland, features more of those hard snares, this time topped off with a tight little flute loop. ‘Kaliwutchawon2’ manages to pull off the trick of sounding old and modern at the same time, with its straight from ’88 drum pattern combining with swirling harp samples, and an extremely thick strings loop. The end result is a dark, almost menacing track that allows Subs to rip the mic with some devastating battle rhymes. And even when Substantial DOES slip into old school mode, its an uplifting experience, as ‘Be People’ proves. Utilising one of the freestylers’ favourite beats, 1982’s ‘Down By Law’ as its backbone, the track is a call to arms for real b-boys and b-girls to rally against those who put the cash before the music.
The final quarter of the album is similarly impressive. ‘The Love Song’ is a thumping ode to sisters and mothers which sprinkles a minimalist piano loop over a bass heavy beat. Another positive cut – and another success. ‘Bananas’ at first comes off as little more than a studio out-take, but the tongue in cheek delivery of the rhymes and the annoyingly addictive plink-plonk flavour of the track, make this one that’ll grow on you.
The final two cuts are both deeply personal and introspective. ‘Remembering Dave’ is a shoutout to a departed friend and features a simple but thought provoking chorus, that conjures up feelings that whether we like it or not, we’ll all have to face some day…
“Why do we live and die
Why do we flip then cry
When we all know nothing is forever on this earth
We try to cure the hurt though it seems nothing really works.”
‘Ain’t No Happy Endings’ brings a superb album to an end. Over a rootsy old blues horn sample, which chugs along until more of those hard-ass snares kick in, Substantial touches on street life, and the effects of growing up underprivileged – “Fuck 21 I’d like to live to see 98.”
There’s a simple conclusion to make here – it may be only April, but this is easily one of the albums of the year. Pick it up. Everyone – meet Substantial. Substantial – meet everyone. I think we’ll be hearing a lot more from this cat in the future.
(The only real problem you may face is where to pick it up, as with this being an indie release, you may have trouble finding it. In this case I want you to email Substantial’s management at email@example.com, the record label at firstname.lastname@example.org or failing that run, (yes, run!) to uggh.com and pick it up from there. You won’t regret it.