Review: ISWHAT?! “The Life We Chose”

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ISWHAT?! – “The Life We Choose”
Hyena Records (2006)

They’re probably much better live.

ISWHAT?!‘s second LP, “The Life We Chose” provides ample evidence for this half-compliment. The album’s only two live tracks–“Kashmir” (yeah, that Kashmir) and “Pilgrimage”–really capture the energy and originality of their stage act. While I might ask for a better quality recording (it almost sounds like there was only one mic), these tracks really shine insofar they showcase emcee Napoleon Maddux’s jazz beatboxing skills and the avant garde jazz skills of saxophonist Jack Walker and bassist Matt Anderson.

But ISWHAT?! is also a hip-hop/jazz fusion act, so what of the other tracks? Well, for better and worse, they’re all over the place. Overall, emcee Napoleon spits the usual leftist, socially-conscious rapper screed: calling attention to the corporations and corrupt politicians conspiring to keep everyone poor, particularly minorities (the artists say that politics actually brought them together in the first place). But he also takes some time to call out hip-hop culture for its own foibles (discussed at length on this site all week). I’ve spent some time commending Napoleon for using this medium to talk about issues of consequence, so I do not pass judgment on these views. I’m just happy that he can offer a message of critical thought, political awareness, and social responsibility.

But let’s get into the music. After starting off with the Kashmir cover, the first studio track on the album is, “Casket”– a punchy, energetic song with Napoleon spitting what is mostly a braggadocio, uplifting, I’m-staying-positive-in-spite-of-the-hard-times kind of message. The keys and the sax make for a smooth melody, and the bass lines are aggressive (as they are consistently throughout the album). But ultimately “Casket” just sounds overproduced. To me, ISWHAT?! sounds best when they are stripped down to their core elements. Here however, you have some pretty generic scratches, the melodic but powdery keys, a moog-type rock organ that sounds like its from a Fatboy Slim track, and a repetitive beatboxing all crowding the song, trying to sound polished. Perhaps they thought this would be commercially viable, as I’ve suggested, but this is one of those places where you should just stick to what you do best.

Immediately following Casket is “Profiles”, a track that I love, and that I’ve discussed before. I’ll reiterate here that I believe that this where the ISWHAT?! experiment truly shines. It’s just drums, bass, sax, and some scratches accompanying Napoleon. It’s really stripped down, reminiscent of something from The Roots’ debut “Organix” and there definitely will be times when you do hear Black Thought in Napoleon’s delivery and flow. It’s additionally noteworthy that there’s no hook on this track–simply Jack Walker’s ode to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Contrast this with the instances where ISWHAT?! tries to organize its song in a more traditional hip-hop formula, with a hook driven arrangement, and mostly lackluster results. (See: “K.N.O.C.K” and “Ill Biz”). The hooks are often just monotonous and not credible in a hip-hop sense.

When I say that the tracks are all over the place, it’s because of songs like “Front.” Here, Napoleon is rhyming over a polished trance beat that sounds like it could have came from Paul van Dyk. There is the occasional wawa-ed sax from Walker, but otherwise it just isn’t original sounding enough to persuade me to genre-hop so abruptly.

The title track “The Life We Chose” is well-done, and stands as an exception to the awful hooks found elsewhere on the album. The main melody is provided by another wawa-ed sax from Walker and it works really well, weaving in and out, from the background to the foreground (the same goes for a harmonized vocal element humming an eerie “oooooh, oooooooooh” kind of thing). The drums really knock too, and at times they sound like they are being punched in with a sampler. Overall, the entire beat is seemingly in a state of constant change, and it really keeps you interested.

The theme for “The Life We Chose” also interests me, because it seems to belie the politics discussed elsewhere on the album. This sort of message of self-responsibility–that we “choose” the path that our life ultimately takes–seems to suggest that life’s struggles are of our own creation. It seems to me the message is intended to promote empowerment (if we choose it, we can change it), but that may contradict the marxist-type arguments that appear elsewhere, suggesting that higher powers (corporations, government) are in control and responsible for our social ills. Perhaps he’s just talking about the hip-hop game. I’m confused, so take a look at the lyrics on the hook and decide for yourself:

so you a boxer with a broken nose
hands up, this is the life we chose
hot fashion model with the itchiest clothes
dress up, this is the life we chose
a farmer on the turf where the worst weeds grow
dig up, this is the life we chose
grab tissue, face issues and fight your foe
cause you know this is the life we chose

Other solid tracks to check for include “Mooch” (Pete discusses it here), “Pilgrimage” (I discuss it here), “The Voice Within”, and “Writer’s Block” (I discuss it here).

But what do all of these tracks have in common? Napoleon doesn’t rhyme on them. Ditto for “Kashmir” as was discussed above. And I don’t necessarily think he’s a poor emcee, it’s just that this album doesn’t showcase his rhyming talent well enough. I will say however, that sometimes he sounds like he’s going too fast and his delivery suffers (lines don’t get the proper emphasis, others sound rushed, that kind of thing). But dude can rhyme, and he has this super unique, half Dougie Fresh/half scat-singing beatbox style going for him. It’s just that I don’t come away from this album saying, damn get this guy a solo album.

Overall, I think “The Life We Chose” is a good effort, and an interesting composition, but it is ultimately a flawed album. The song styles can be all over the place and the attempts at traditional hip-hop sounding tracks are sub-par. The band shines on the stripped down tracks that either a) are live, or b) sound like they could have been live. That is to say, I think IsWhat?! has good thing going, but their attempt to put together a studio album falls short here.

I give the album 3.0 out of 5.0 Tapes.

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2 Responses to “Review: ISWHAT?! “The Life We Chose””

  1. First Single: "Sound the Alarm" « Trading Tapes Says:

    […] Demand” is “Sound the Alarm,” for which they also put out a video. If you recall, I criticized ISWHAT?! and their hip-hop hooks. Let this track stand as the perfect example of the right way to do it. The shit is […]

  2. new songs Amy MacDonald Says:

    Run – Amy Macdonald (Lyrics)…

    Macdonald started performing on stage acoustic gigs when she was 15. Her influences include Travis, Pete Doherty, and The Libertines. After several performances in Europe, Amy sang at festivals such as V Fest during the summer of 2008….

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