Intricate With Intellect
Ah, the Shapeshifters, what a many-layered onion that topic is! I feel like a masters thesis could be written about them and their interweaving ideologies. They are a bunch of B-boys involved in all Four Elements, and they are all at times also nerdy conspiracy theorists. They dabble in anarchy and also in religious morality. They are the racially privileged who are also antagonists of racial privilege. They are informed sociologists who are politically charged, and also slacker winos who are only a half-step away from being back in their mothers' basements. They are glamorous emcees that hold down day jobs. They are cavemen, and also futuristic robots.
They also have a prolific output, both collectively and as solo artists - but nowadays I ain't seen 'em. I remain a hungry fan, and although some of their output remains new upon each listen (ie Gangstaz Fo Gawd, Know Future, Planet of the Shapes), other releases have received less headphone treatment and sometimes go overlooked. Hence this review of this particular record at this particular time. Bleek's debut solo joint went under my critical radar for years, and I'm sorry it did. The reason being for omission is that he's not really a Shifter any more. He has a distinct voice and flow, and had some key verses in the old Shifter recordings, but more recently he's had a bigger spot alongside other ex-Shifters Perk One, Meck and Deeskee in their group, the Ex Vandalz. He also joined up with rapper/producer Avatar in their Speak Easy project. Dispite his affiliation, Ex Vandalz and Speak Easy are not the same animal as Shape Shifters. Vandalz are a crew of graf writers who also make graf-centric music; as opposed to the psychedelic sounds of the Shape Shifters - who consists of Circus (doing whatever the hell he wants) and some other guys trying to be heard above the din. Basically, that means when I'm in a Shifter mood I need to hear Shifters - or sometimes a Circus Solo joint. That's the only thing that will do it. Not Ex Vandalz, not Chain Smokers, not English League, not Awol or Radio or Exist. The Shifters as a unit are unlike anyone else, even themselves.
But something happened to them at some point. Maybe they lost their focus, or got some focus, or something. I feel like, as with anything Shifter related, that it had a lot to do with Circus. He stepped back, and let everyone else have a turn. If you listen to their last collective album, Was Here, it sounds like they're parodying themselves. They dumb it down, go through the cliche'd subject matter of alien abduction and illuminati crap, and have their girlfriends sing the hooks. An inspired Circus rant is not heard once throughout the entire record (unless you count "We R The Dinosaur"). Maybe he was just being nice, and wanted his bandmates to do their thing. But even his solo record with Asmar from around the same time is a little lackluster. His record with Odd Nosdam never materialized, and now he's saying that evil forces (involving alien persecution) are conspiring against him to keep him from finishing his newest album. Psychotic break? When exactly did he become schizophrenic?? 2003, maybe.
So where do you turn to when your hero dies? Naturally, you start bugging his friends. The Shifters cast a prolific shadow, but like I said earlier, it's hard to go for a Shifter solo joint unless you want to hear something besides the Shape Shifters. It seems absurd to say it when talking about this act, but in order to appreciate a solo outing from these guys, you have to have an open mind - not because the solo material is so far out (Except Slanguage, that record is so far out), but because the solo material is so conventional in relation to the classic group efforts. The Ex Vandalz are like that - they are conventional in the sense that they craft no-bullshit hip hop. Bleek also falls into that category - and he does it really, really well. In fact, it's great to hear him on his own. As Circus historically overshadowed the rest of the Shifters, Perk One overshadowed the Vandalz. His voice is loud and bombastic, vs the quieter deliveries of Bleek and Meck; and his love of graf writing kept the subject matter limited. Here Bleek stretches out, and although he tends to rap in a soft-spoken manner and his flow can be a little rusty, he excels at poetry and conceptualism. The subjects of graffiti and governmental conspiracies are revisited, but he also speaks out about his hip hop history, the role race can play in entertainment, and just being a b-boy in general. It's his record, he can rap about whatever the hell he wants. Unfortunately he takes a couple ill-advised detours (the unfortunate "Love's a Bitch" and the just plain stupid "Hub Cabs and Mud Flaps"), but those are truly the only deviations from an otherwise accomplished and continuously surprising record. The Shape Shifters it isn't, and it shouldn't try to be. Bleek owns his work, and it's a good record by any other standard in hip hop.
Although a solo record, Bleek doesn't shy away from collaboration. Avatar provides the lion's share of ill beats, along with Meck, Polyhedron, Jizzm, Mascaria, and Life Rexall. Joining him on vocals is the always welcome Meck, as well as Perk, Jizzm, Exist, Awol, Akuma, Fat Head, Biru, 2Mex, and the rest of the Shape Shifters (on "Words of Wizdumb" and the Danny Styles-remixed "Kornbizkit", a superior version to the one found on Adopted By Aliens). Besides this record, Bleek released a record with Avatar as Speak Easy, and a full-length Ex Vandalz record as well. But since 2009 he's been off my map. I hope he's still making music, because I look forward to hearing more, probably more than I want to hear the next Shifter's colab. And that means a lot coming from me, possibly the sweatiest Shifter nerd in the world.