Artist: Code Red
Album: All Aboard
Label: Toucan Cove Entertainment/Universal Records
Rating: 7 / 10
Letting the rest of the world know that Louisville, Kentucky is “doin’ big things” are Code Red, whose second full-length “All Aboard” is distributed by Universal. The foursome undoubtedly possesses a variety of qualities that could and should spell out mass appeal. In Watz, Code Red have a producer that knows how to knock out professional beats. The line-up is multi-ethnic, they have paid their dues locally with releases like 2000’s “Diggin’ for What?” EP and 2002’s “Since Forever… ‘Til Forever” LP, and while they have tracks that urge you to crank up the volume, some of their songs also invite you to listen closely. Unlike many local efforts these days, “All Aboard” is a finished product, and from the sound of things, it was so prior to the intervention from above (i.e. the major getting behind them for a national release). The rappers sound at ease at any given moment, adjusting well to changes in the sonic set-up.
The title track opens up with gospel vocals by a female guest singer, followed by stuttering southern flows aiming to get the name Code Red out there will full force, “bangin’ it out the hood / over the hills and through the woods / through the bricks and around the curbs / in the sticks and in the ‘burbs.” ‘For My People’ is the group’s pledge of allegiance to its diverse clientele, from the rich and shameless to the poor and nameless. While Watz intertwines the slick, anthemic Aftermath aesthetic of his beat with an acoustic country vibe, they still manage to lace the track with tongue-twisting alphabet aerobics: “This is for my people who get kicked out of clubs / picked out, stripped down, frisked down in cuffs.”
There’s no denying the infectious nature of a lot of the tracks on offer here. In particular the promiscuous ‘Looking Good’ is an extremely catchy incitement to go crazy in the club, and there are several to-be-certified club bangers. But despite their inclination to give the people what they want, Code Red also have the ability to deliver what is needed. ‘Give Me a Reason’ zooms in on two soldiers engaged in America’s current nation-building and terrorist-hunting activities, whose greater purposes elude them in the face of their immediate concerns:
“She used to watch _GI Joe_ before _Magnum PI_ came
From the time that she was knee-high she wanted to be GI Jane
SeÃ±orita bonita with the heater
taught to fight for a cause like Evita
To get a piece of, mamacita lended a helpin’ hand to Uncle Sam
And now he’s got her lyin’ in a bunker under sand
underhandedly fightin’ panicky with a gun in hand
Half way around the world from her mother, and
it’s so hard to understand why she left her motherland
to fight for a country that didn’t respect her
but expects her to die in its wars in order to accept her
America thinks she’s fightin’ for they freedom
when in reality she’s fightin’ to stay breathin'”
The other song tackling heavy issues is ‘Brother Louie’, an update of Hot Chocolate’s hit of the same name, dealing with interracial relationships facing adversity. The fact that two different couples appear in the song, their names remaining unchanged while their respective skin colors switch, causes some irrtation, but Code Red get their point across, with one romance even ending tragically.
While the importance of such messages and the professionality of their presentation are not in question, one wonders if Code Red don’t carry too much baggage with them. They have a poppy lead single, ‘Summer Jam’, whose blatant sample (El DeBarge’s ‘I Like It’) and joyful spirit might be misleading in regards to what you can expect from the album. Their line-up includes a Jamaican toaster who is well integrated but apparently couldn’t do without a solo cut (the shallow ‘Pimp it Out’). They cater to car freaks with the old schoolish ‘6-4 Switch’, complete with a screwed and chopped hook. They even resort to making threats at one point (‘Atomic’). They employ a plethora of guest singers who play a crucial role on many a song yet are not part of the corporate identity. And their club tracks are clearly influenced by contemporaries, most notably Ludacris (‘Elbow Room’, ‘The Sky Is Falling’).
By track number 4, ‘Drive By’, “All Aboard” begins to slip down into all-too familiar territory, where not even elements meant to provide a break will provide said break. Make no mistake, everything is expertedly put together, the strings are where strings belong, the funky guitar licks are where funky guitar licks belong. The club material is instantly recognizable, just like it should be. But instead of exploding with creativity, the album begins to acquire a formulaic touch, right down to the smooth sax and strings on ‘Long Time Coming.’ To Code Red’s credit, there’s only one track that mixes oil and water, ‘The Only One’, where romantic wooing meets ruff ragga chants and raunchy rhymes, as if to symbolize Code Red’s disparate demands: “I want a girl with a potty mouth / that act like a school girl when she’s at mommy’s house.” Sometimes, you can’t have it all.
The all-inclusive “All Aboard” might very well be a cleverly devised strategem to get people to enjoy themselves and to get them to think (plus to sell some records). But by keeping their multiple modes of operation strictly separated, they do send mixed signals. The most convincing rap acts have always been able to let their personality shine through each and every song of their catalogue. Code Red sometimes seem to dress up for every new occasion, so to speak. There’s the unconfirmed suspicion that since its debut album from four years ago, this act has gone through a process of commercialization. That is nothing to find fault with. Too many underground rappers are incapable of leaving their little universe. But when your album sounds like a compilation, you got a problem.