The Unusual

Artist: El Da SenseiTitle: The UnusualRating: 3 1/2 StarsReviewed by: Henry Adaso

New Jersey Hip-Hop has been in limbo lately. Redman’s album will probably never see the light of day on Def Jam; Queen Latifah is on permanent Hollywood hiatus, and with Joe Budden’s sophomore album, The Growth, pushed back to 2010, there’s hardly any wordsmith left to restore faith in New Jerusalem. Well, El Da Sensei thinks you’re dead wrong. The throwback emcee jumped into the rap league by dropping the “backpack” blueprint with Artifacts’ Between A Rock and A Hard Place with partner Tame One in ‘94. After debuting with the solid solo effort Relax, Relate, Release in 2002, El is back dressed in a Jersey sound superhero outfit labeled The Unusual (Fat Beats).

Blasting off with the cinematic “Crowd Pleasa,” El sounds like a kid excited to have re-discovered his intimate indulgence. Delivering wordy rhymes with unparalleled earnestness, it’s almost obvious that El rocks his b-boy roots on his sleeves. In the same vein, “Blow S**t Up” is dispensed with such harrowing intensity that it’s almost poised to scare away the pop audience. The album’s spotlight is a tie between the Sean Price-featured bragfest, “No Matter,” and the Omar Credle (O.C.) – assisted “Nuttin To Lose.” On the former, Sean Price tilts his AHH Indie Album of 2005 crown to the side and enters into a friendly competition with his host, while the latter sounds like a poignant theme song to an upliftment-themed movie. Lifting his listeners further off the ground and placing them down gently, El weaves the schmaltzy “Natural Feel Good,” over the backdrop of a splendid soul-tinged soundstripe.

More refulgent soundtracks abound on The Unusual. Like the premo-esque masterstroke, “Lights, Camera, Action!” which will definitely have heads nodding with its spluttering piano loops and thunderous bass; and the thudding “Up In Da Spot,” which is guaranteed to have hips gyrating. On the flipside, DJ Revolution’s experimental mishap “What’s My Name” suffers from a dated sonic and irritating water-drips sound (the type you’d hear when stepping out of a water-filled tub), but he quickly makes up for the missteps with plush cuts and scratches. Although intended to be a potent track, “Rock It Out” comes across as a shameless Neptunes forgery. Thankfully, it’s El’s utterly original lyrical ferocity that carries the track at the end of day.

In an era when rappers are routinely propped up with big enchilada guests and gimmicky grooves, El Da Sensei’s The Unusual is a testament to music legacies that inspire rather than follow. Besides successfully awakening the New Jersey sound, El has also violated a timeless axiom: that the sum of the whole is always greater than the sum of the individual parts. Tame One, take note.