As an original member of Philadelphia hip-hop group The Roots, Malik B often performed in the shadow of one the genre’s greatest MCs, Black Thought. In the 15-plus years between leaving the group and the release of his full-length debut, Unpredictable, the “Illadelph” native has figured “it” out, both as a wordsmith and a self-aware, albeit imperfect man.
The term “grown man rap” often gets thrown around when referring to rappers who’ve stood the test of time. Their first few releases, driven by unabashed braggadocio, a voracious appetite for peer validation and loads of raw talent slowly, but surely get swapped for technically sound and introspective rhymes. Malik B has reached that stage…without the discography. With New Jersey beatsmith Mr. Green rounding out the partnership, Unpredictable has all the fundamentals of a solid hip-hop opus in spades.
The album’s lyrical content is a mixed bag befitting its title. Clocking in at under 40 minutes, several of the LP’s 13 tracks are evidence of Malik B’s quest for self-improvement and/or enlightenment, spiritual or otherwise. If the first few bars on “We Gonna Make It” are any indication, the man has done a lot of soul searching: “It ain’t no stressin’ no more, ’cause God blessin’ me/I got the secret to success, it’s a recipe.” Moreover, while “Crown of Thorns” acts as the MC’s account of hardships past, the self-explanatory “Fake Friends” brings Malik’s path to self-acceptance full circle. But in a genre as competitive as hip-hop, even the “grown man” rappers can’t abandon self-agrandization altogether. Simply put, machismo never takes a back seat in hip-hop, hence muscle-flexing tracks like “Dolla Bill”, “Definition”, “Rips in the Paper” and “Rhyme Exercise”. Between the delicate, but harmonious balance of humility and ego lies one of Unpredictable‘s thematic (and sonic) gems, “Devil”, where Malik B details the catch-22’s and psychological toll in navigating a seedy Philadelphia underworld.
As for the production, the LP’s master on the boards, Mr. Green, does more than merely set the stage for Malik B’s musings. He raises it. The sampler Green flaunts on the cover art is a proud claim of a student of “boom bap”, a 90’s sound characterized by looped drum breaks, re-purposed samples and scratch hooks. Unpredictable is somewhat reminiscent of that golden-era sound, most notably on “Dolla Bill” and “Tyrants”. In short, Mr. Green, like his contemporaries Marco Polo and Apollo Brown, is applying the old-school’s production style to 21st-century hip-hop.
All art-snobbery momentarily aside, the merit of a hip-hop album lies in its rhymes and beats. Even though Malik B wasted most of a Mr. Green banger by following a killer verse with three minutes of Jamaican Patois on “Tyrants”, the LP succeeds on both of those fronts. That being said, the duo, as much of a peas-and-carrots pairing as they may be, are not reinventing the wheel so much as bringing it back temporarily. Nevertheless, boom bap, like any sound that’s attained “classic” status, never gets old, making Unpredictable 40 minutes well spent.
Gems: Dolla Bill, Metal is Out ft. Benefit, Devil, Definition, Rips in the Paper, Rhyme Exercise, Dark Streets ft. R.A. the Rugged Man & Amalie Bruun