Allow me, if you will, to engage in some rampant hometown bias. As a kid growing up in Boston in the late ‘80s we didn’t have much. The Red Sox were either terrible or heartbreakingly not good enough, even Larry Bird couldn’t stop the Celtics’ inevitable downslide to mediocrity, and Tom Brady was still just a skinny kid playing Pop Warner football in California. To make matters worse, no matter how long we watched MTV or listened to the radio, we never, ever, heard Boston rappers. Boston’s underground scene was thriving (shout out to 88.9), …
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That’s all changing. Thanks to the work of folks like Statik Selaktah, Akrobatik and too many more to name, the city of my birth is slowly but surely building a reputation as a home to truly dope emcees, a reputation that should only build with the release of Black El’s Color Commentary. Raised in Jersey but now presiding in - you guessed it – Boston, El first caught attention for his debut album A Major Minority, and for Commentary he follows Freeway and Jake One’s lead back to the land of one producer, one rapper albums, teaming up with local beatsmith Durkin for a project that’s, to ironically use a cliché, a breath of fresh air in an otherwise often stale rap game.
Every artist needs that one track that demonstrates everything they’re capable of, and for Black El that track is 100 Miles. Apparently allergic to fakery, El drops rhymes that acknowledge his present situation (an Acura) while taking care to point out that there’s no romance in playing the starving artist role. It’s a level of honesty and introspective insight we don’t hear much, especially when delivered with such a smooth flow, but importantly El also shows he can get down with the best of them on Color Commentary’s other obvious single, Go!. Featuring Outasight, who knows a couple things about making music outside the expected, Go! is a guaranteed head-nodder that El laces with Saved by the Bell and Star Trak references, along with reflections on his barely there employment situation that his energetic rhyme style lifts from a litany of complaints to a call to action. Those looking for lines to steal in their next cypher (“keg stand girls too easy to tap”) will want to check out Lunch Line Rap, while those hankering for some grit will find themselves putting Dead Poets Society on repeat. No matter what your personal taste, El makes sure Color Commentary has something for you - unless you enjoy wack s**t. In that case you’re gonna want to look somewhere else.
Any credit, and I suppose by the same token blame, given to El for Color Commentary should also be aimed at Durkin, so it’s only right that we take a moment to spotlight the man’s work. While it’s hard to pin down his style, he doesn’t have signature like Dr. Dre’s piano lines or Dilla’s eclectic drums…then again, maybe that is his signature. Just take Once a Week, a record that finds Durkin Donuts, as I like to call him, surrounding a boom-bap foundation with a chopped vocal sample, electronic synths and subtly overlaid effects. It may sound complex on paper, but in actuality the beat comes across as tightly wound, which is the hallmark of a producer who knows what the f they’re doing. Honorable mentions also need to go out to The Jam, which brings on more of a soul-sample vibe, and Chutes & Ladders, which touches on everything from Indian drums to video game sound effects before it’s done. Crucially, while these beats could easily sound awkward when paired with other rappers, Durkin’s work meshes perfectly with El’s seriously lighthearted flow, and on a one producer, one rapper album, that’s all that really matters.
Color Commentary is not the album that will make Black El an international superstar (sorry man, I wouldn’t put a deposit down on that private jet just yet), but it is an album that will further cement his status as a respected up-and-comer. After that? Only he can determine how far he goes. As for me, let’s just say I’d like to see more Celtics hats being rocked at the Grammys. I’ll leave it up to you to get there El.
Listen to More: Black EL Written by Nathan S.
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