Album: It Came From Beneath the SFC
Label: 442 Records
Rating: 5 / 10
There’s this statement I once read in a review that stuck with me. The writer described a beat that “rolls like hip-hop without the grating effect.” I took immediately offense to that. If you look up the word ‘grating,’ you will be provided with a definition along the lines of ‘disagreeable to the sense of hearing.’ A scientist who exposes everything from plants and fetuses to Mozart and MotÃ¶rhead to test their natural reaction will probably disagree, but in my experience music is mainly something that we learn to hate and learn to love. There are music styles I have little tolerance for, on either side of the sound spectrum. They definitely have a ‘grating effect’ on me. Manifestations of hip-hop are rarely among them, because at some point I have been conditioned to like hip-hop for what others might hate it for. I have embraced its potential ‘grating effect’ as something positive. Because what would hip-hop be without the disturbance, the interference, the going-against-the-grain? It would be boring.
The first time I heard Unagi, he presented himself on his self-titled debut in purely instrumental form, showing a predilection for pleasing, simple loops and hooks, embarking on unspectacular excursions in funk, jazz and rare groove, glossed over by a touch of easy listening. That was in 2003, and after 2005’s sophomore effort ‘Keepin it Eel’ the San Francisco resident has released his third album in July. With ‘It Came From Beneath the SFC’ he continues down the same path. All melodic parts are on the lighter side. You get a little bit of soul, a bit more funk, some exoticness – none of it particularly compellingly arranged. On the soul side, the opening ‘Shock and Awe’ serves up celebratory, uptempo soul with (hopefully) intended glitches in the looping process. Soulful would be too kind a word for tracks like ‘Expanded and Up to Date’ and ‘Shoulda Known Better,’ because while they contain such elements, the arrangements are stiff and suffer from flat drums. ‘If U Wanna’ even evokes memories of the thankfully discarded ’80s drum sound of rock and pop.
‘Rolling Ronnie’ is better because after the intial electro pop touches tone and pace change several times, making this an instance where the producer really put some thought into the structuring of his music. There’s also hope in the psychedelic atmosphere and broadened drum spectrum of ‘Split Decision.’ ‘Stay Focused’ brings the funk while cutting and scratching add much needed rawness, unfortunately guest rapper Linkletterz won’t give the track any room to breathe.
Features include New Yorkers King Caesar and Gamble on the Rakim-sampling ‘Ricochet,’ Kero One (who’s fresh off his commendable debut ‘Windmills of the Soul’), who encourages Unagi’s efforts on ‘Reach’ with “I might spit it hard or smooth it up / if the melody’s tellin’ me to mellow it up / This bassline’s deep funk like armpits / so much funk Pharcyde’s singin’ ‘Aw Shit’.” Melina Jones combines singing, spoken word and rap on ‘Wrap You Up,’ another track that evolves as it progresses. Unagi himself tells the story of a rekindled romance on ‘Lost & Found,’ and while his rapping is nothing to write home about, I’m more frustrated by the unprofessional reproduction of Motion Man vocals on ‘Who Spilt the Beer.’ Way to waste a high-profile guest appearance.
There are fleeting moments of solid craftsmanship on ‘It Came From Beneath the SFC,’ but ultimately it is rather poorly produced, hampered by a muffled sound and too many drums of questionable quality. The problem with the album is not that it contains elements that you don’t associate directly with hip-hop, it’s that it tries to get by with gimmicks like clipping tracks unexpectedly, which was cool the first couple of times we heard it, or which is okay if you’re on MF DOOM’s level, but not if it reinforces your lazy approach. Purposely or not – amateurish is still amateurish. As smooth and devoid of any ‘grating effects’ as it may come across, Unagi’s third is still mostly a grating experience to my ears.