REVIEW: Athletic Mic League – Jungle Gym Jungle

Jungle Gym Jungle

Artist: Athletic Mic League

Album: Jungle Gym Jungle

Label: Barak Records

Rating: 6 / 10

Reviewer: A to the L

Athletic Mic League hail from the Hiphop wastelands of Ann Arbor, Michigan. hip-hop group composed of six MCs and a DJ. Don’t let that put you off, as members Sonny Star, Buff (1), DJ Haircut, Grand Cee, Texture, Vital and 14KT have a respected reputation in underground circles that began with the release of their demo “The Thrill Of Victory, The Agony Of Defeat” in 1998, and was cemented in 2002 with the release of their proper debut “Sweats & Kicks”, recorded during a brief but inspirational trip to New Jersey.

Now under the tutelage of RJ Rice, CEO of Barak Records, and the man behind Slum Village, AML hope to capitalize on the eager buzz their previous album has created for this new joint – welcome to “Jungle Gym Jungle”…

Ain’t nothing like starting the show off with suttin’ fon-kay… ‘Xoom’ features a loping beat dominated by an insistently throbbing bassline – its like a Jay Dee beat with a set of testicles, and the vibrations will give you a swift kick in yours. Like every other track on “JGJ”, ‘Xoom’ is produced by the Lab Technicians production team, (with member V-Tech getting the credits here) and is little more than a short intro to the team, with basic aggressive rhymestyles taking a backseat to the beat. Let it ride, let it ride.

‘Feel It’ (I hate to say it) is a little Kanye-ish, from the heavy snaps to the floaty soul sample, to the horn stabs in the background, to the general sing-song vibe of the whole track. Its a total departure from the headsnapping beats of the previous cut, and when compared to ‘Xoom’, and the track that follows, ‘Watch Me’, seems awkwardly out of place. ‘Watch Me’ is a cautionary tale to uniniated emcees on the politics of the underground Hiphop industry, and brings back the heavy bassline, and another drum pattern that lollops along beside the bassline in an addictively haphazard manner. Both cuts were produced by D-Techtive, who at the very least shows that he can toss out different sonic looks, and isn’t tied to one sound. (This is later proved by the stripped down sound of the later ‘Let’s Go’, where cliched as it seems, he creates an authentic old school sound.)

I honestly ain’t feeling ‘Lasersteps’ at all. The beat is rapid and uneven, chock full of squirming synths and sirens which distract from each emcees’ vocals – maybe this is a good thing though, as they all sound uncomfortable delivering lyrics at such a quick pace. Its easy for this unease to transfer to the listener, and the skip button is quickly located and pressed.

‘Teamplayer 2’ sees us five ‘real’ tracks deep, and suddenly it strikes me that with the cat from Slum Village behind Athletic Mic League now, they now sound remarkably similar TO Slum Village. Now this ain’t necessarily a great thing, as SV still really have to win a lot of people over after the snoozefest of “Trinity”, and ‘Teamplayer 2’ unfortunately sounds like it could have been lifted from that album. I think enough’s been said here.

Luckily ‘People Mover’, ‘Heavy Medal’, and ‘Birth Control’ pull the album (and the direction of the sound) up by its bootstraps. On ‘People Mover’, Producer Cliffnotes makes up for the earlier ‘Lasersteps’ faux pas, by blessing AML with an organ-infused thumper of a track. Feel the heat here as the beat knocks, and the emcees actually attack the mic with energy warning of their potential for destroying stages with their sound…

“Oh no, playa you outta bounds,
The heavens are coming down, cos we stomping on the clouds,
Treat us like we them niggas known to get rowdy,
And we can have your club looking like 9/11 right now.”

‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Birth Control’ sees V-Tech take the boards and bring a definite slap to the backing tracks. The former track blends rock guitar stabs, and rugged kicks and bass thumps, while the latter ups the tempo a little but retains a heavy thump. V-Tech seems to have weighed up the skills of the unit, and manufactured his tracks accordingly – both of his cuts here, the earlier ‘Xoom’ and the later ‘Promised Land’ all sound more ‘traditional’ than other producers’ efforts here, and his tracks suit the emcees’ delivery perfectly.

The ‘Heartless / This Ain’t Livin’ medley in the middle is a joint production effort from Cliffnotes and D.Techtive and switches beats halfway through, from a beat that actually starts with some promise and then begins juddering around erratically all over the show, to a more refined, soulful minute and a half of Tribe-Called-Quest-ish beats and strings, and some surprisingly effective singing vocals.

The middle of the album definitely seems like a good place to be. As things continue with a pair of Forekast-produced tracks, most traces of ‘Trinity”-ness have faded. ‘Whatchuknow’ takes some normal, run-of-the-mill situations and flips them into more dramatic landscapes – getting your hair braided, and watching sports suddenly seem like something else altogether. The string-heavy beat supports the vocals perfectly…

“I take it you don’t know about the first time getting braided?
Your eyes watering, cussing like ‘This bitch is crazy’,
But you get used to em, then they start itching,
But you can’t scratch em, so you poking and you picking em,
Take it out and wash it,
The next day you over at her crib telling her you want braids like Iverson.”

‘Take Em High’ meanwhile speeds up the pace, as AML spit rap-performance-as-drugs-comparison vocals over a hazy beat. Obviously this is some shit to get high to, but Forekast has maintained a nice little rugged edge to this. Elsewhere, ‘RU’ puts D-Techtive back behind the boards, and as the fellas talk about fumbled teenage experiences, he injects a little bit of sexy funk into the mellow mix. This is almost music to make out to!

I don’t know what it is about the title track (which pops up very late on in the course of the album), but for some reason it reminds me of Outkast’s’The Way You Move’. Its hard to pin down why – where the Big Boi track was all sweetness and light, ‘Jungle Gym Jungle’ is a much more moodier affair, with each emcee delivering grim vocals in Mobb Deep-esque ‘I’ll kill you and won’t even change my vocal tone while doing it” steelo. Still though I can’t find the feeling that Sleepy Brown is gonna jump out somewhere here, and start crooning. Weird.

‘Promised Land’ is a very strong cut, and has a nice commerical edge, that could see it become a single. AML ride V-Tech’s snappy beat perfectly, as he drags gospel voices in and out of the mix with perfect timing, building the track to its feel-good ending. Its a superbly positive way to end the album. Unfortunately there are another couple of tracks following this that probably should have been trimmed off – ‘Leaders’ tries to carry on the vibe of ‘Promised Land’ but unfortunately a weak female vocal sees the track prematurely run of steam; ‘The Rip’ sounds like a last-minute-tack-on bonus cut affair, and really, they shouldn’t have made the effort. Here there’s little more than a stripped down drum track, that limps along weakly, and doesn’t inspire the emcees to do more that mumble some throwaway party type lyrics in places. Shoulda left it behind, guys.

So where does all this leave us? Well, with an uneven album that peaks bang in the centre, before petering out towards the end. “Sweats And Kicks” was a much better effort, and in fact may have cursed AML by being TOO good TOO soon. This is decent, but patchy in places, and with several tracks that weren’t really what I was expecting or hoping for – it seems that in trying to refine their sound, Athletic Mic League have shifted slightly away from that which attracted us to them in the first place. At certain point throughout this album, its hard to fight the feeling that they’ve tried to be TOO clever with their sound, and in my opinion, it hasn’t paid off. A good effort, but not close to the standard of “Sweats And Kicks”.

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