Sunday, 2 May 2004

Album Review: Look Mom... No Hands

Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein wasn't just a great album, it picked up the torch from Company Flow and single-handedly reinvigorated hip-hop like only Funcrusher Plus, Enter The 36 Chambers and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back had achieved before it.

Not only that, it was, in this writer's opinion, one of the very best albums ever made. I would hate to play down Vordul Megalah's contribution to The Cold Vein but it was Vast Aire's flow that stood out. One moment heart-broken suitor, the next a demented conspiracy theorist, he played each role to perfection; his intelligent verses were a Godsend for true hip-hop fans everywhere. In the interceding three years, fans have had their appetite whet with guest appearances on albums by El-P and SA Smash amongst others. All of the above serves to make Look Mom... No Hands the most anticipated hip hop album this year.

As early as the second track (tepid chant-a-thon KRS-Lightly) Vast's mystique begins to unravel with lyrics as insipid as, "Niggers want war like Edwin Starr, but what is it good for? Absolutely nothing / I'm saying Ice Ice Baby lost eighteen zeros, cos he was absolutely fronting." it's hardly surprising. The production isn't much better; the track hops along to a sub-Dre style beat. Sadly it's fairly indicative of what remains of Look Mom... No Hands, Pegasus, Candid Cam / Wetlands 1996 and the inaccurately titledZenith are all frustratingly ordinary.

The production is probably the biggest problem with the album. A glance at the sleeve will inform you that seven different producers take control of the desk on the LP. While it certainly makes the album a more diverse one that The Cold Vein the end result is rather scattershot. Only Madlib and MF Doom really excel themselves, while RJD2 and Jake One offer decent beats on '9 Lashes' and Viewtiful Flow respectively, it leaves the album sounding a bit too random.

Where The Cold Vein was a rich melange of conspiracy theory, tales of New York streets and the absurdity of life, Look Mom... is a predictable mix of braggadocio and nerdish in-jokes that verges on the cliched at times. (".... But you already knew that, like the third movie of The Matrix was gonna be whack" - Viewtiful Flow and "It's funny how they brought Trinity back like Lois / I guess Clark and Neo wasn't having that." - Pegasus). Elsewhere, Vast displays a rather typical line in immodesty as he quips "I brought street to your radio." on 'Viewtiful Flow'.

While there are some really disappointing moments on Look Mom..., glimpses of Vast's talent do seep through. Opener, His Majesty's Laughter was originally found on the Euphony compilation. It's earlier incarnation was as a stand-alone track, but here it has to be satisfied with the intro tag. It has Vast at his most demented as he spits, "Opportunity was like fuck knocking, I'll pick the lock." There are other moments when Vast's lyrical dexterity and eye for a clever metaphor return to the fore; reminding the listener why this album is so anticipated ("If I'm the son of a gun then I came from a cannon" - Look Mom... No Hands). Elsewhere both Poverty Lane 16128 and Life's Ill Part II recall the feelings of hopelessness and defiance from The Cold Vein ("Either all I find I keep or just gimme.") and are two of the highlights; proving that Vast Aire is a better rapper when he's angry or depressed.

However, that isn't to say he can't perform on the more upbeat numbers. Da Superfriendz is one of the real highlights of the album. MF Doom continues to prove that he can do no wrong with a masterclass of old-school production. Vast takes a trip down memory lane, and it's quite interesting to hear about his formative years, as he recalls, "I used to sew army patches on my favourite coat / BMX, got your guns, old folks got soaked." In a time when most mainstream rappers are attempting to re-enact 1994s obsession with gangsta, it's quite refreshing to hear an MC quip about waterpistols. Other highlights include the Wu Tang-esque 9 Lashes (produced by RJD2); it's Vast at his most uncompromising while the soaring orchestral accompaniment serves to exaggerate the vitriol and WHY'SDASKYBLUE? is an obtuse collection of a snapping drum, science fiction samples and a thunderous bassline. It's also one of the few moments where Vast contemplates life ala The Cold Vein as he recalls, "We learn mathematics, then we count our blessings / at the age of ten, I picked up the pen / fire's pretty and it burns / I learned that then."

Just as Fantastic Damage lacked a consistent voice to accompany El-Ps typically obdurate production, so Look Mom...No Hands lacks consistent production to transform Vast's somewhat scattershot lyrics into something more cohesive. So in short, it's very much a mixed bag. It's not always poor, but the moments where the album rises above mediocrity are far too seldom. Perhaps Vast needed people like Vordul Megalah and El-P to rein in some of his more commercial tendencies? We'll never know for sure.

You can blame overconfidence, laziness or a lack of direction, but Vast Aire's talent is not in question, which only serves to make Look Mom, No Hands more frustrating.

Anyone expecting 'The Cold Vein Pt. II' will be massively disappointed.

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