Obie Trice – “Special Reserve”

Obie Trice is the Eminem protégé largely faded into the background. He’s never had the gutter-dragging horror-core sludge rep of a Bizarre from D12, and he’s not graced with the uber-distinctive flow of a 50 Cent. But that relative anonymity tended to allow Trice to be more of a true Detroit everyman. His music maintained his place in the gangsta world while implying that he, more than the rest of Shady’s entourage, had managed to at least remain a part of the Detroit environment, rather than just recalling it through a haze of rap clichés.

Special Reserve is Trice’s first LP since his much-discussed departure from Shady Records and Interscope, and is an attempt to return to the underground world of independent hip-hop while retaining a sense of modern production flair merged with old-school instrumentation. It is also, if you believe the Internet’s hip-hop press, a sonic precursor to Trice’s Bottoms Up, the long-awaited album he’s supposedly been working on for years, including work done before leaving Shady/Interscope.

For the most part the LP is successful if one considers it something of a reinvention. This isn’t going to be mainstream hip-hop by any stretch of what radio’s been playing in recent years, but it may wind up being a bit too mainstream for the world of underground. But if Trice does intend this to lead into Bottoms Up, it could gain a lot when the full concept is unveiled.

That said, the LP does gain a lot of ground from the attention Trice has paid to the production and beats. The entire 11-track affair was produced by MoSS, the first DJ signed to legendary DJ Premier’s “Works of Mart” production company. Adding to the level of consistency is the fact that DJ Grouch scratches on four of the album’s top tracks: “Got Hungry,” “I Am,” “On and On” and “4 Stories.”

When you get right down to it, scratching and DJ work have a hell of a lot more to do with the rise of hip-hop as an art form than modern touches like Auto-Tune would love to make us believe. This return to a sense of hip-hop history helps Special Reserve add a sense of sonic gravitas to the proceedings than perhaps the resulting gangsta lyricism really deserves.

All lyrics considered, there’s not a lot of depth here. Plenty of time is given to the general clichés: guns, girls and all the glory which supposedly comes from being a success in the world of “players and innovators.” But on “Dope, Jobs and Homeless,” Trice lays out where he’s come from and why he doesn’t feel the need to take shit off anyone:

I done been homeless, no place to sleep
Moms don’t wanna hear it, no place to eat
Pass out on my man’s couch, just for a week
‘Til he get fed up and kick a nigga to the street
Face turning blue, cars ridin’ by with the little children
On the inside pointin’ at you (“mommy, look at that man!”)

This hardly has the raw eloquence of many of his peers’ biggest hits, but where Eminem and 50 Cent are able to grab the mainstream, Trice still at least has closer ties to that life on the street. And on this track, more than anywhere else on the album, he comes closest to giving us a glimpse at “real” life, the kind which doesn’t look so glorious. It’s as though he’s a few steps removed from winding up back in that place he seems so proud of escaping, a few strokes of luck (or degrees of separation from his mentors, perhaps) away from having to be the one taking shit rather than giving it.

That, more than anything, lends hope that Special Reserve could be more than just an attempt to get back to Trice’s roots. If he continues down this road with Bottoms Up and manages to find more to rap about than just the everyday gangsta bullshit, 2010 could be the year Trice actually makes his first truly revolutionary album. Until then, Special Reserve at least provides listeners with an LP of material worth noting for its willingness to take chances in a genre frequently devoid of anything remotely outside the now.

Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.

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