The compilation album has long been a prominent staple in Hip Hop culture. Collections such as Soundbombing, Lyricist Lounge, Cruel Summer, and Shady XV exhibited various talents as labels, crews, and like-minded musicians united on a single auditory presentation.
Mello Music Group has been one of the leading voices to seize on the idea of assembling its artists for collaborative projects. After releasing the previous works Self Sacrifice and Mandala, Vol. 1 & 2, the Tucson-based indie label returns with the 2015 compilation Persona.
Roster members Oddisee, Apollo Brown, L’Orange, Open Mike Eagle, yU, Quelle Chris, Red Pill, Rapper Big Pooh, Ras Kass and guest features contribute original songs to the 16-track anthology. Mello’s founder Michael Tolle took on the task of amassing the varied cuts into one project.
“I spend the year putting these together. It’s a constant battle, because artists want to give you leftovers. They don’t want to make the hottest track and not put it on their record. They always want to give you that leftover s**t,” Tolle explains to AllHipHop.com. “They know that this needs to be better than anything else they’ve done, because this is my record [laughs]. It’s got to pop.”
Tolle was extremely hands-on in the conception of Persona. He picked the collaborations and the producers for each track. Tolle even oversaw the album’s artwork, taking inspiration for the creative process from famed artisan Mark Kostabi.
“Do you remember the album covers for Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II?” asks Tolle. “So the dude who did those [Kostabi], he hired a team of people and told them, ‘You do this. You do that.’ I use the label and these compilations that way. I’m not a musician, but I know what I want to hear.”
The music on Persona ranges from the stirring opener “Requiem” from Oddisee and Phonte to rap veteran Kool Keith spitting bars over L’Orange’s production on “Sometimes I Feel” to Quelle Chris teaming with Newark singer Bilal Salaam for the soulful ending number “All I See Is You.”
Several artists also used the project to tap into the hardships – and in some cases the hard truths – of living in modern America. On “PNT,” Ras Kass advocates for the working poor against the Republican’s 1% agenda and what he sees as President Barack Obama’s failed policies. Open Mike Eagle’s “Celebrity Reduction Prayer” assails society’s idolization of fame and those who covet stardom at any cost. yU addresses the Black community’s desire for social mobility with “Lose The Ground.”
“Hip Hop always has been and always will be activist, because it’s people speaking about things that are happening. At least if it’s ‘real,’ meaning truthful. If not, then it’s not what I call Hip Hop. [In that case], it’s not a culture, it’s a product,” states Tolle.
He adds, “With everything going on with all the killings from the police recently, a lot of people said, ‘Are you sure you should be tweeting that? Are you sure you want to say something about that?’ I don’t even think about it. Of course we would. Didn’t you feel something when you heard this? Aren’t we hear to express that through art? It’s what was happening in the world, so we had to express it.”
Despite the different performers, producers, and topics proposed on Persona, the body of work is an offering that counters the notion label compilations typically amount to disjointed clutter.
“We have this range of artists that really aren’t the same, yet I’ve got to marry this into one sound,” says Tolle. “It’s my job to marry all the different sounds of the label into one cohesive sound, so that people see how the pieces fit together. So they understand how an Apollo Brown can fit in with an Open Mike Eagle or an L’Orange.”
Tolle takes pride in his ability to gather these distinct personalities and aesthetics and put them forward as one unit. For him, the LP serves as the prevailing vocal, rhythmic, and melodic representation of his label’s brand. In other words, Mello Music Group’s public persona.
“Persona can be two things. It can be your mask, but it can also be the character you present,” Tolle states. “While we tend to think of a mask as phony, you can look at it more as the character that you carry. That’s how I viewed this project. How do I present to the world what Mello Music Group is for this year?”
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Purchase Mello Music Group’s Persona on iTunes.
Stream Persona below.