This is the first of the re-booted album reviews. All previous album reviews will be re-done. Just a heads up.
In a world/country, where lyrics revolving around either politics, how crappy your life here in Lebanon has been, or just being gangsta (penned by disciples of Eminem and Lil’Wayne of course) are rapped to synth beats and the obligatory oriental-fusions (because everyone who samples oud in a beat is the first person to ever do it, for no one had yet dared pull such an earth-shattering move), a group stands out by being a band with two rappers as vocalists, or maybe two rappers who rely on a band to provide their beats. Either way, the concept is fresh.
After much anticipation, they have released their self-titled debut album under the Forward Music label. Some of you may know that Fareeq el Atrash had already released a sort of album, which was a defunct pre-album that they decided to share instead of sweeping under the carpet.
While the album is an adequate introduction to the style and subject matter of the group, it isn’t really that much of a delectable audio-treat. It’s healthy and wholesome, but doesn’t give much of a sugar rush. Let me eleaborate: It leaned more towards the funk aspect of the band than towards the hip hop aspect. So any hardcore funkaholic will eat this up first listen, but I for one had some trouble digesting it, and it’ll take a while for this to grow on me.
The fact that there are previously heard versions of some of the songs to compare these new ones to is a bit unfair, because these songs should be treated as separate works and judged by their own merits, without having something to live up to. But I must resort to comparison in some cases.
The rappers, Edd and Chyno, are socio-political, but not whiny, optimistic, but not in a “life’s all about getting laid and rocking bling” way, and have a sense of wit and humor. That’s one of Fareeq’s appeals, their capability of breaking out of the norm and rapping about topics that are not a priority to most rappers. Throughout the course of this album you will hear songs about: the true meaning of rap (Su2alu Jimly), pure un-superficial love (Sunshine), and the importance of perseverance (Da3ess 3al Akheer).
These verses are laid over a classic funk-rock style, crafted by John Imad Nasr on bass and Ghassan Khayyat on guitar. They never came off as cheesy and were genuinely soulful and funky, even displaying some reggae and jazz tendencies. Some additions were also made to pre-heard songs, like the distorted guitar and keyboard-organ in “Demoqrati, which were pretty cool. But the drums are another story.
The drums in each track are very similar, with a few exceptions. When I say drums, I’m not referring to the beat, but to the particular bass, snare, and hi-hat sounds. You can notice slight alterations throughout the tracks, like in “Demoqrati”, where the snare drum sounds sharper. These adjustments were not that obvious, with the exception of such tracks as “Su2alu Jimly”. I repeat, leaning more towards funk and soul.
Let’s take a look at the pre-album: In that version of “Demoqrati”, there was a drum-sampling-beatboxing mix going. Different samples used in each track, if not, then used extremely discretely and minimally; a hi-hat sound is re-used, maximum. “Terikhna Bi Libnen”, the drums consisted mostly of very rich almost pots-and-pans type percussion, and the actual drums came in the choruses and near the end, with tambourine even. “Biwa2ta” did not appear in the pre-album, but it was on the fourth 7keeleh compilation CD (7keeleh IV). I know SOMEONE out there must have heard the pre-album version from the 7keeleh CD. It featured some very nice clunky-sounding percussion for the drumbeat. It was more hip hop.
What about the percussion now? It is used quite sparingly. FZ provides some beatboxed maraca-emulation in “Byen7aka”, there is some manner of jingling going on in the choruses of “La Wein”, and hand-claps substitute snare in “Sunshine”. This is all even weirder when you consider who produced the album: Ghazi Abdel Baki. The man is known for his diverse, layered, genre-fusing world music.
Now, in contrast to the underused, we come to the overused: horns. This isn’t really a universally-acknowledged pitfall of music, it’s more of a “me” thing. I would have thought it more appropriate to feature horns in only a handful of tracks, not almost all of them. The only reason I can give for this is that I think it diminishes the whole feeling of grandness that horns could give. Horns don’t have to be used in fast-paced hard-hitting compositions. They can be found in slow and dirty rhythms as well. But I prefer them being a treat that the listener is rewarded with in moments of musical intensity. There was no reward here, because they were just everywhere.
What was the status on horns in the pre-album? “Demoqrati” featured saxophone in the end, “Khabriyten” had a trombone-like sound (actually an effected sample, but it still sounds like a single wind instrument to me anyway) as the provider of the main riff, “Shou Kamish” too featured clarinet that played a catchy riff. Not a huge horn section, but in some cases, the single wind instruments play an important role in the melody itself, and not just acting as filler.
On a positive note, I liked how FZ was allowed to do his sound effects and beatboxing, even in the studio. They could have easily brought in DJ Lethal Skillz to lay down some cuts on “Njoom 3am Te2rab”, but they let FZ take the spotlight with an epic vocal scratch solo. They could have just recorded “Da3ess 3al Akheer” without the racetrack skit and sound effects, but they did, and I dare you not to crack a smile at least. This has proven that FZ is not just a replacement for a drummer or turntables in live shows, but a genuine component of the bands’ style.
And this isn’t really relevant, but I was sad to see certain tracks cut and hope they make it onto future releases.
Final Verdict: Too much funk, not enough hip hop. But despite my being a little at odds with some of the musical elements, since I was expecting hip hop with a funk flavor but instead received almost pure funk, the music and lyrics make this album a big leap for local hip hop, in new directions, or actually old ones. When we Lebanese began rapping in Arabic, we did it the way it was being done in the US andd Europe. So now, after years of moving parallel to western hip hop, Fareeq el Atrash triggers a movement of exploration of the roots of hip hop: funk, soul, and blues. This is indeed evidence that a little Arabic old-school-hip hop-revival scene is on the rise. Ladies and gentlemen, The Banana Cognacs…