Label: Low Life Records
Rating: 9 / 10
Rather than try to summarise this long overdue second album from one of the UK €™s greatest pioneers in a glib opening sentence, I €™ll let the man Braintax do it himself: €œthe whole point of Panorama is to think outside the box, see the bigger picture and broaden our minds € he explains on the Low Life Records website. This could apply generally in our everyday lives, given the fractured state of world politics over the last five years, or more specifically, within the British music industry. It is these two topics that provide the bulk of the material on “Panorama” showing that rap is able to have a deeper meaning beyond materialism and recurring gangster clichÃ©s, to speak about something both simultaneously simpler, yet also more meaningful. If basic aggressive delivery and stale street tales are representative of a blinkered worldview, then Braintax €™s latest offering is certainly the full three-hundred-and-sixty degree widescreen edit.
But who is Braintax to act as judge you might ask yourself. Well for one, he €™s been in the game for over fifteen years, and is the owner of the most successful British hip-hop label to date, Low Life Records, responsible for crucial releases from artists such as Jehst, Skinnyman, Task Force and Rodney P over the years. Perhaps the crown jewel of this superlative back catalogue however, comes from Brains himself, and that is 2001 €™s “Biro Funk”, an album that personifies the relevance of British rap in the face of generic Neptunes-produced club anthems. And so with “Panorama” Braintax takes this blueprint and confidently expands it in every direction, basing his production on heavy soul and funk samples, rather than the two-step grime influences of the Terra Firma crew, among others. It €™s this stripped down, back-to-basics approach that permeates the album €™s gospel tinged opener ‘All I Need’, produced by Beat Butcha. Here Braintax shows his individuality, shunning the stereotypes of freestyle circles, beefs, €œLondon chat, € and even weed smoking: “Bring the soul back / take some shrooms / fuck it man / take a pill / it might open your mind / or maybe have a good time instead of sitting there with paranoia.” He calls for rappers to focus on their actual needs ( €œfood, clothes and shelter €) and get some perspective; being poor is having nowhere to live and nothing to eat, not just being unable to afford more credit for your mobile phone.
It is Beat Butcha who also provides production on the album €™s banging lead single, ‘Run the Yards’, a track dedicated to €œall the cynical bastards in the house. € The lyrical content is directed towards to the British music industry, personifying it as a prison that keeps down the true talent in this country, and it truly is a scathing attack. Calling out image-conscious and vacuous executives, he picks on the cynical exploitation of black artists from this country, chosen seemingly at random to act as a symbol of a record company €™s ethnic diversity and €˜urban €™ commitment: €œI ain €™t mad an any artists / it €™s the industry I €™m cussing / London media white trash / coke head hacks playing with Dad €™s cash / trying so hard to €˜be down €™ and be cool / sign the €˜ghetto-ist €™ artist / hoping that reflects on you / you €™re still a pussy and you get no play / you €™re like Kleinfeld the lawyer in Carlito €™s Way. € I could quote more lyrics, but suffice to say, it €™s a good job he puts out his own records because, if not, he €™d probably be finished after this.
The single €™s flip, ‘Last Tenner’, represents the other side of this record; the less serious, clowning fun that couldn €™t be further from some of the political messages present on “Panorama”. The track €™s introduction speaks about the world €™s problems before Brains interrupts with €œfuck it, let €™s go and get drunk! € Lyrically, this is a light-hearted look at British drinking culture, with no analysis or commentary, just a celebration almost.
While Braintax €™s strength on this album is undoubtedly the wealth of more sober and profound material, ‘Last Tenner’, along with other straight forward entertaining tracks such as “Biro Funk” sequel ‘Back to the Riviera’, do still have significant value. The peak of these party tracks comes through collaboration with good mate Mystro on the hilarious ‘Good Or Bad’, where the two trade verses about whether its preferable to have a nice clean good girl or a back handed shady one. The two have great chemistry and Mystro kills it, rhyming about how he €™s always liked the bad girls: €œGimme a chick who knows how to treat a fool / does credit card scams, used to cheat in school :Brains I couldn’t give a cream pie what you say / give me the thickest chick you seen on Crimewatch UK! € By providing variety through lighter subject matter, Braintax makes the serious messages of the other album tracks even more compelling, drawing the listener into hearing the words, instead of just being lost in a mixing bowl of political diatribes.
It is this contemporary reference and commentary however which makes “Panorama” stand out as both a superb rap record, as well as a relevant chronicle of the state of the world, from the point of view of a bitter Northern bloke anyway. Throughout the five overtly political tracks on the album, Braintax covers everything from race issues to foreign policy to concerns over environmental decline, all with deceptively simple yet heartfelt content. As critiques go, ‘Decade’, aimed at the Thatcher dominated 1980s, is as vicious as ‘Run The Yards’, tackling the political divide between the conservative south and labour north, framed in the decade €™s bleak civil rights riots and rampant materialism. Similarly, the uncompromising ‘Syriana Style’, pulls no punches in its attack of media coverage and foreign policy over the war in Iraq: €œDon €™t forget what our government does / when we all go abroad it reflects on us / sitting on the beach / sitting in a club / loud-ass Brits in the English pub / man I €™m amazed that we still get love / while we €™re punching the world with American gloves. €
Furthermore, a collaboration with Dubbledge ‘Anti-Grey’, speaks on race relations back in the UK, even sending up some of the British stereotypes raised in ‘Last Tenner’. Once more, Braintax €™s guest rips the track up, touching on the issues of refugees, the BNP (British National Party) and even this country €™s still dormant Imperial aspirations.
The album €™s melancholy closing track ‘Exit Plans’, offers a more retrospective look at the world €™s problems, once more returning to the focus on basics and personal happiness. Braintax is asking us to see what we €™ve accomplished and not take it for granted before its too late: €œStill tryin €™ to show the earth respect / a lot of artists talk that conscious talk / but don €™t walk the walk / I believe our lifestyles will come back to haunt :damn right its getting hotter in here / been consuming too much / I need to stop this year / and get away to where the air €™s still crisp / the sun €™s still safe and its cheap to eat fish. €
But perhaps the most focus will rightly fall on another “Biro Funk” sequel, ‘The Grip Again,’ subtitled ‘A Day In The Life Of A Suicide Bomber’. Spoken from the point of view of a young Palestinian boy who becomes a suicide bomber, over subtle eastern influenced strings, this is truly an empathetic masterpiece: €œSounds and the smells of a place called earth / where human rights vary on your place of birth / for what its worth I €™m gonna redress a bit of balance / I €™m not brain washed / just prepared to be a martyr / young firestarter and the world won €™t act / detonate my body and take some dignity back. €
“Panorama” isn €™t perfect however and it most likely won €™t be to everyone €™s tastes. Some will point to the over-simplified political conspiracy theories that we €™ve all heard out of Michael Moore €™s mouth more than enough. Others will say that there aren €™t enough catchy €˜club €™ hooks or big name guest spots, and that those guests that do appear, outshine Braintax €™s understated delivery. People might even be turned off by the lack of hustling tales and see his cynicism as middle class condescension made manifest. But in these days of gangster posturing, does the UK scene not need an everyman figure, devoid of all the iced-out mystique? The success abroad of Rhymefest, and even to some extent, Kanye West, has been based on this hook, yet Braintax offers this experience even more vividly than either of these superstars could ever hope to achieve. At a live show, you €™ll see him in the crowd dressed unassumingly in a hoodie and jeans enjoying a beer with the crowd but when he €™s on stage, you can see what it means to him. He €™s just a normal guy who happens to have a decent ear for beats and can rap really rather well.