Artist: ChopsTitle: VirtuosityRating: 3 StarsReviewed by: Toshitaka Kondo

Being the first Asian American hip-hop act signed to a major label, the Mountain Brothers dropped real shit, no gimmicks. Unlike potential flash-in-the-pan rappers who want you to learn Chinese. Their debut Self: Volume 1 established them as a humorous and talented outfit repping the Philly proletariat. Now their producer, Chops, brings a diverse cast for his directorial debut, Virtuosity.

Growing up is never easy, and Chops’ sonic evolution is somewhat awkward. The subtle drums and laidback grooves of Self are gone. Instead, synth sounds have taken over bringing loud, snappy snares with them. This harder sound may have been necessary because of the various emcees featured. However, with 26 tracks (not including a hidden track), at times the arrangements or drum patterns are very similar.

Also, featuring a name brand rapper doesn’t correlate with quality music. Raekwon’s “What’s Fuckin Wit Us” is forgettable, while Planet Asia’s “Niggarachi” is just confusing. I guess it’s a tribute to Slick Rick? Despite showing potential, a mere 12 bars from Kanye West on the autobiographical “Changing Lanes” sounds abrupt. Although the pianos at the end are pleasant.

It’s the lesser-known Illadelph artists that bring the strongest efforts. Baby Blak gets super political on “Tears,” pulling the devil’s hoe card and refusing to shed tears about life’s difficulties. Politically incorrect continues with Kev Turner’s angry rants at the music industry on “War.” Chops’ bells and multilayered strings, help Turner get his point across: “The flow that I spits is not to be confused with/Commercial radio rap put out for your amusement/God gave me a brain, so Imma use it.”

Production-wise, the album is good if you’re not too attached to Chops’ earlier work. Although I am, there are still tracks on Virtuosity that come off. His rolling xylophone loop and soft bass line give an appropriately somber feel to “Still Life.” Also, jazzy musical interludes like “Juiciness” and “Royal Entrance,” showcase his musical abilities and make for easy listening.

Producers, like emcees, are plagued with continual comparisons to their earlier work. It’s natural to want a starting point when analyzing something. On Virtuosity Chops is almost unrecognizable from his previous material. Determining whether it’s a new, improved Chops will depend on personal preference.