Hell’s Winter

Artist: CageTitle: Hell’s WinterRating: 3 1/2 StarsReviewed by: Paine

Pete Nice and Daddy Rich’s Dust to Dust is one of the most criminally slept-on albums of the early 90’s. Early MF DOOM production, not to mention The Beatnuts, all on what now seems to be unthinkably on the Def Jam label. On “Rich Bring ‘Em Back,” Cage entered the game. A lot of stuff, puffs, and handcuffs has happened in the dozen years since. But as somebody who literally helped build the “underground” you see today, Cage is owed his propers. Still, his albums felt more like caricatures of his vices. Cage’s movie alter egos and schizophrenia are over. Hell’s Winter (Def Jux) reflect more honesty, a new deal, and some exciting collaborations outside of High & Mighty’s tight-woven circle.

Few people can ever admit to getting a message in a Cage song. Usually, gory rhymes of rough sex, violence, and abuse are put to words. Brace yourselves. “Scenester” is easily the smartest Cage record to date. As with Little Brother’s “Whatever You Say” or Tonedeff’s “Porcelain,” Cage attacks a narcissistic ex who plays the hip-card for all the wrong reasons, in spite of her insecurity. The descriptions and images are very well chosen, and the lack of sympathy is made very clear. The title track maintains the imagery, but speaks almost entirely in metaphors of the evolution in Cage’s identity. For fans of his raps who considered previous messages to be concrete and shallow, this serves as a skill showcase of the Middletown vet’s writing. While most of the album reflects a new Cage, some efforts like “Lord Have Mercy” pull him right back to his past of horror movie narrative raps – for better or worse.

While lyrically, Cage wanted to grow, Def Jux let Cage mature in terms of music. Getting DJ Shadow to produce Rap records in the 2000’s is about as difficult as Rick Rubin. “Grand Ol’ Party Crash” is the product of that rare collaboration. The political diatribe is better for its wordplay than its disappointing crashing uptempo beat. The song has a lot of brains and wit, just no heart – something Shadow usually exerts in MC’s. That soul is captured in the RJD2 collaboration, “Shoot Frank,” another gem of the album. Cage emulates a Kanye West delivery over a nice electronic keyboard beat and some saccharine singing on the hook. El-P gave Cage a most unique sound for about half of the album. El spawned improvements such as “Good Morning” or “Hell’s Winter,” which pull Cage out of his historically unenthused delivery. In contrast, Blockhead adds codeine slow grooves on “Stripes” and “Scenester.” Though DJ Shadow may not have stolen the show, Def Jux veteran production suffices to plenty of growth and improvement.

Sometimes old dogs can learn new tricks. Cage has more heart in his raps than he did with Pete Nice and Rich in ’93. Maybe that can be attributed to the painful journey of disappointments it’s been en route. But pulling Cage from an environment conducive to his vices above his insights has brought out a new side to a seasoned vet. Def Jux has saved Company Flow from dying in the Rawkus ashes and its saved C-Rayz Walz from underground obscurity. Now, just when it seemed stable, the label has saved Cage from being remembered as a monster instead of a trailblazing dope MC.

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