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Monsta Island Czars
Escape From Monsta Island
Metal Face Records/Rhyme Sayers Entertainment

As hip-hop solidifies its position as America's most popular form of music, it's continuing to develop its own case of nostalgia for the past. Of course, in rap's hyper-accelerated evolutionary scale — fast enough that people actually make non-ironic references to Biggie and Tupac as "old school" — the "good old days" can be as recent as the Clinton administration.

Monsta Island Czars are a nine-man NYC group who painstakingly recreate the crawling, minor-key beats of early-'90s underground NYC hip-hop like Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan. They even share the Wu-Tang's fascination with sampling movie dialogue, only this time it's Godzilla instead of '70s kung-fu flicks.

This project is being marketed under the aegis of MF Doom (billed here as King Ghidra), the mask-wearing legend once known as Zev Love X from KMD. MF's Operation Doomsday LP from a couple years ago was a lo-fi masterpiece that mixed his offbeat rhymes with dusty samples culled from forgotten '80s pop R&B records.

Monsta Island are his crew, but unfortunately few of his cohorts exhibit Doom's charisma or creativity. It's telling that "MIC Line"(a solo song that features the only Doom vocals on the album) overshadows anything his partners bring to the table. He's also notably absent on the boards, contributing only a handful of the album's 20 tracks. Producer X-Ray (who handles the bulk of beat duties) does an admirable job of duplicating the basement feel of the group's influences, but doesn't really manage to do anything more than what RZA and Mobb Deep's Havoc were doing better a decade ago.

Unlike Doom, whose slurry, mush-mouthed delivery is one of the most distinctive voices in rap, all most of the assembled MCs can manage is to whip out tongue-twisting extrapolations of Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck's (the two "realest" AKA "least popular" members of the Wu-Tang) demanding wordplay. I suppose it's the instinct of professional underdogs who seem to sense that they might never have another shot at the mic — therefore why not try to put every single rhyme you ever thought of in one verse? It's that sense of desperation and intensity that makes this album both compulsively listenable and ultimately tiring. Somehow, I doubt that Monsta Island even dream that they're going to get out of the underground commercial ghetto. At one point, one MC even drops the wry joke: "I'll bet a dollar this goes gold." Call it the hip-hop of diminished expectations.

Despite their numerous flaws, I will give Monsta Island this: When they're hot, they're hot, especially on "M.I.N.Y.A.," which marries a wicked boom-bap to a stumbling electro bassline, and "Gunz 'n' Swordz," the home to a sweeping string sample epic enough to make RZA jealous. Also, a couple of the MCs do stand out from the pack.

Kamackaris, the closest these cloistered underground monks have to a Method Man, does display a charismatic late-'80s flow that helps break up the often overwhelmingly dense lyrical onslaught. He's no great shakes, but a little humor and a good sense of rhythm can go a long way amidst all the dreary "keepin' it real" jive.

The one member who manages to shine on a fairly consistent basis is Rodan, who spits his bogglingly complex lyrics like free-associative refrigerator-magnetic poetry. Somehow, though, he manages to make each verse feel like a daring tightrope act, where you can't help but listen to see if he's going to rhyme himself right off a cliff. Here's a pretty typical line (and keep in mind this all takes about six seconds on record): "Got you deaf, dumb, and mindless/ Triple-stage criminal life blinded/ Rip your vertebrae/ Oh, silly me/ I forgot you're fucking spineless/ deep space stun phaser/ new frontier gun blazer/ gotta dream/ shoot-out your local KKK fundraiser."

Hell, it's every bit as reactionary and retrograde as any garage-rock Nuggets tribute artists worth their greasy jeans jackets, but I can't help liking it despite myself. If, like me, you're an old codger who tries to pretend you love Missy Elliott, but secretly cling to your old Smif-n-Wessun records and think rap peaked at Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Links, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

However, even as your freshman-year memories come flooding back, you'll also have to come to terms with the bad things about underground hip-hop: Too much complexity for complexity's sake, too many rhyming words for the sake of rhyming, and far too many flows that run roughshod over the beat with no regard for cadence or meter. That, and the nagging feeling that you've heard these songs before.

by Matt Helgeson

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