Philadelphia Music Critic and Journalist
In his most recent publicity bio, Philadelphia-based rapper Marcus Alexander, a.k.a., Philly Black, candidly discusses some of the hardships he suffered growing up. In addition to having an abusive father, who his mother got away from when he was a kid, Philly Black experienced hardcore poverty. Rappers who describe those types of hardships in their publicity bios often come out with angry, thuggish albums. But Who I Be, Philly Black’s third album, isn’t like that at all. This 2013 release never ventures into gangsta rap territory, and it isn’t confrontational or in-your-face. Instead, Philly Black favors alternative rap, offering a lot of reflective, philosophical lyrics and sometimes inspiring comparisons to another Philadelphia-based alterna-rapper: Kuf Knotz.
Philly Black favors an introspective, contemplative tone on “Moment of Clarity,” “The Come Up,” “Winds of Change,” “Food for Thought” and the title track. He sometimes talks about the hardships he has experienced in life, but he doesn’t do so in a bitter way. Instead, a recurring theme on Who I Be is that what ultimately shapes a person is not the difficulties he/she goes through, but how he or she responds to those difficulties. Much of the time, this is a serious-minded album. Who I Be has a lot of substance, although Philly Black doesn’t achieve that by going out of his way to prove that he’s hard as hell; like many alternative rappers, he does so in an intellectual and contemplative way.
But that is not to say that Who I Be doesn’t have its fun moments. “Philly Live,” for example, is a great party groove and an infectious shout out to the city he grew up in (although he was born in Annapolis, Maryland). And another party groove on this album is “Smoke On,” which references a subject that everyone from Tone Loc to Schoolly D to Snoop Dogg to Cypress Hill has rapped about: marijuana. Hip-hop certainly wasn’t the first musical genre that had marijuana songs: there were plenty of them back in the jazz world of the 1930s and 1940s (“If You’re a Viper” and “Reefer Man,” for example), and ganja has been a recurring theme in reggae. But these days, hip-hop reigns supreme when it comes to marijuana anthems. And Philly Black makes his contribution with “Smoke On.”
There was a time when hip-hop was dominated by tracks that were raw, tough and defiantly hard. Back in the 1980s, East Coast hardcore rappers such as Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J and Boogie Down Productions often favored rugged tracks that emphasized drum beats, cuts and scratching rather than melody or harmony. But Dr. Dre’s sleek, polished grooves (first as a member of N.W.A, then as a solo artist) did a lot to move hip-hop producers in a more melodic direction, and his influence as a producer is still being felt in 2013. Who I Be, clearly, is on the melodic side. Selections like “Be With You,” “Moment of Clarity” and “Love, Peace, Understanding” aren’t just about beats; they are also about melody and harmony. Who I Be has plenty of rhythmic appeal, but the material also has a lot of melodic and harmonic appeal. And many times, those melodies and harmonies recall 1970s soul. Hip-hop heads who have a healthy appreciation of the 1970s productions of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff (the producer/songwriters who founded of Philadelphia International Records), Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield or Barry White should have no problem getting into the soul-drenched grooves on Who I Be. The tracks that Philly Black raps to (some of which are downright lavish) skillfully merge a hip-hop beat with the polish of classic 1970s soul.
In 2013, alternative rap continues to be a vital part of the hip-hop world. And with Who I Be, Philly Black makes an engaging contribution to alternative rap.
Who I Be
Review by Alex Henderson
4 stars out of 5
ABOUT THE WRITER
Genres: Alternative Rock, Singer/Songwriter, Jazz, Metal, Punk, Latin, R&B, Hip-Hop, Reggae, Blues, World Music
Alex Henderson is a Philadelphia based veteran journalist/music critic whose work has appeared inBillboard, Spin, The L.A. Weekly, Creem, HITS, Jazziz, JazzTimes, CD Review, Skin Two, Black Radio Exclusive, Thrash Metal and a long list of other well known publications. Known for his eclectic tastes, Alex has contributed several thousand CD reviews to The All Music Guide online and series of reference books since 1996. Jello Biafra, Sonny Rollins, Megadeth, Ice Cube, Live, Chick Corea, Public Enemy, Marduk, Bobby Brown, Ra and Everlast are among the many well known artists Alex has interviewed during his long career.
Artist: Philly Black
Album: Who I Be
Reviewed by Jason Randall Smith
There are so many in life who have endured hard times in their early years that have come out on the other side with hardened hearts, and understandably so. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Philly Black, a seasoned wordsmith who appears to be stronger and wiser after weathering the storms of poverty, childhood neglect, and hip-hop career limbo. With over 15 years in the game and two solo albums under his belt, Who I Be represents his third time at bat in full-length album form, which slowly unfolds into a deeply introspective work. It's clear that he has a lot on his mind and he holds his audiences captive with every verse.
The album's title track opens the release and makes for the best introductory selection to Philly Black as an artist. With taut drum programming that wraps around soulful production hearkening back to the days of the Philadelphia International label, "Who I Be" serves as a manifesto for his role in today's rap game. Recognizing that the present-day focus is on style rather than substance, he chooses to stress individualism over imitation. "Everybody talking about the same things," Philly observes. "Selling their souls, that's the price for the fame." There's something about his tone of delivery that's reminiscent of Rakim's early releases with Eric B., slightly gritty but with a rich resonance, filling the room with intricate rhyme couplets and weighty subject matter. Even as he warns doubters that he never left on "The Come Up," he still leaves room to remind listeners that time is running out for unification. His overflowing ambition practically spills over the delicately juggled string samples and neck-snapping snare crashes. It's enough to make the most jaded hip-hop critics believe that they were witnessing the rebirth of the genre's "Golden Age."
It's fitting that Philly Black has chosen a moniker that represents for the city that he grew up in, one that was nicknamed "The City of Brotherly Love." To that end, his lyrical lean towards the positive picks up on this theme with "Love, Peace, And Understanding." Over reflective piano riffs and solo flute slivers, he stresses the need for the gunplay to cease, looking beyond the surface of street violence to those unseen pulling strings ("Supply and demand, yo, controlled by the same hand"). Whereas this cut deals with concern for the neighborhood, "Be With You" shows his poetic flair for romantic intimacy, penning a beautiful sonnet for his lady love. The production is absolutely exquisite with woodwinds fluttering like butterflies in the breeze over intricate clicks and slinky bass lines. This is not to say that Who I Be doesn't allow for time to kick back and have fun. "So Good" paints a picture of Philly Black on his days off, ready to enjoy life and look good while doing it. The same can be said of "Smoke On," with carefree lyrics soaked in a hazy groove complete with cool guitar licks and velvet smooth vocal harmonies on the hook.
While songs like "So Good" and "Smoke On" make for necessary feel good pieces, it's selections like "Winds Of Change" that will stay with you. As flourishing piano riffs dance over a stoic kick-snare combination, Philly Black confesses to having his crossroads moment of suicidal contemplation, but finding the strength to persevere in spite of it all. The world of hip-hop is truly better off for having him in it. Who I Be is proof that the third time's a charm, using engaging wordplay and hypnotic instrumentals to coax rap music back to a place of self-love and motivation.
Reviewed by Jason Randall Smith
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
About the writer