Artist: MicranotsTitle: The Emperor And The AssassinRating: 4 StarsReviewed by: Maurice Downes
If you ever want to understand why hip-hop's "Golden Age" was tagged as the late eighties through the early nineties, you need look no further than Eric B and Rakim, De La Soul, and Wu-Tang Clan. Ok, what's the point? Eric B and Rakim drop Paid In Full in 88. It's, in effect, a hip-hopper's hip-hop record. If there's been a better textbook example of emceeing and DJing... well, forget it, there hasn't been. In 1990, De La Soul puts out Three Feet High and Rising, an unintentionally epic album full of dope beats, inside jokes, and fearsome individuality that introduces the world to the hip-hop skit. And next, Wu-Tang decides to turn hip-hop on its head with some of the grimiest emceeing heard up until then... threats of torture and kung-fu samples would stay in the minds of hip-hop fans for years.
See, the point is you never knew what you were going to get in hip-hop. Aside from the generally high quality of every release in that period, you were always completely 180-ed by what came down the pipeline, and it always made you expand your definition of what hip-hop could be. It's difficult to say whether or not Micranots The Emperor and The Assassin will occupy the space of a genre-defining album some years from now, but it is damn easy to say that it's a refreshing approach to hip-hop that'll stay with you long after your first listen.
It's a bit funny, when you read interviews of what the Micranots were going for on this album; that is to say, nothing in particular, just another album. Regardless, the Atlanta duo of I Self Divine and DJ Kool Akiem have really come into their own with Emperor and the Assassin. The Micranots have always been a force to deal with in the underground, but after dropping this release, in addition to I Self Divine's work on the stunning Semi.Official debut... well, they deserve to have their name in the same sentence as Cannibal Ox, High & Mighty, El-P, or any of your other indie Hip-Hop usual suspects.
The Emperor and The Assassin is all things a good hip-hop album should be. It's lyrically tight, dynamic, and memorable. The DJ work by Kool Akiem conveys the album's generally dark mood while avoiding boredom or plodding along. While a lot of it calls into mind the early 90's work of Premier and RZA, some of it is funk-heavy and turns the notion that indie hip-hop isn't danceable inside-out. All the while I Self Divine rips verses that paint a bleak but hopeful picture of black struggle and personal strife. His storytelling style ranges from making sense of bad events like on "Eight Days" (saw my mother cry/ when her mother died), to indictments of the justice system, like the amazing "Steel Toe vs. The Rookie" which features I Self trading rhymes with Slug who plays the role of remorseless cop "Steel Toe". The Micranots can even slow it down effectively, and the love joint "Ms. Gemini" is justifiably playful and contains a bad ass wa wa guitar riff in the background.... you know, just in case you forgot what the song was about. All the while, songs melt and mold into one another with between-track interludes and dissolves and the total mood never drops. In essence, this feels likes a complete piece of work, not just random songs strung together.
About the only thing you could assail The Emperor and The Assassin for would be the one ineffectual track, "Off Beats" which isn't as musically strong or lyrically blistering as the others... the guest emcee, Malcolm, also has trouble keeping up with I Self Divine. It just feels lazy. But, then, it's one track out of the many that'll stay with you long after you've overplayed this one. Micranots may not have had a specific "vision" for what they wanted to do with The Emperor and The Assassin, except for the one that every group, hip-hop or not, has when they start a new album: make it the best one possible. So, they did.