As far as songs go, few prove as challenging to sing as our national anthem.
It’s a technically demanding tune from first note to last, to be sure, beginning with a low bellow that quickly soars toward star-punching high notes, eventually swelling to a show-stopping crescendo that even the most seasoned performer can have trouble mastering.
My favorite hip-hop moment from 2011 was when the speed-rap once-superstar Busta Rhymes, now almost 40, resurfaced from the 1990s on Chris Brown’s excellent “Look at Me Now” single, as confident as if he’d been around all this time.
The guy’s so old, he got his nickname from Chuck D, but now that he’s signed to Cash Money Records, Busta’s probably going to be all over 2012, starting with a really fun guest verse on Raekwon’s “Unexpected Victory” mixtape.
The track’s called “MTV Cribs” and opens with the Wu-Tanger doing what he does best: describing scenes that overflow with detail in impressive, tongue-tying technical virtuosity. When Busta jumps in to welcome the listener by pointing out “Christmas chandeliers lookin’ like satellite dishes from NASA,” and caps the track by shouting “Get up out my castle!,” it really feels like you just watched an episode of “Cribs” condensed into two minutes and 45 seconds.
But, yeah, if you’re into free hip-hop from quality artists, the new year’s been a lucrative harvest. “Unexpected Victory” hit the blogosphere recently, as did Das Racist emcee Himanshu’s (aka Heems) goofy and thoroughly enjoyable “Nehru Jackets” and Rick Ross’ characteristically grandiose “Rich Forever” (“Father, please protect me from broke-ness and bitch-ass niggas,” the former prison warden prays) and “Talkin’ to the Holy Ghost in My Bugatti," both of which I recommend.
But if you’ve only got time for one free album from a viable hip-hop talent, go with “Unexpected Victory.” These tracks aren’t new topical ground for Chef, but it sounds like he’s still very much in touch with his early-'90s crack-cooking Wu-Tang persona, although he’s less a participant and more an observer, either rapping about rough-and-tumble stuff he wasn’t necessarily party to (as on “A Pinebox Story,” where some poor kid gets pistol-whipped and robbed) or offering advice on how to build an empire in the hood.
The latter’s blueprinted nicely in “This Shit Hard” where one of the L.E.P. Bogus Boys shows off some serious acrobatics of pronunciation when he gleefully pulls “raw organic blow, straight off the banana boat.” The “I can show you how to make a killin’ in the projects / All I need is the powder and Pyrex” hook is the first on the whole album, and it slays.
Wu-Tang fans will be glad to hear a bunch of descending piano samples, and Rae doesn’t drop a single half-baked verse here. Ranking up with Busta’s in terms of guest verses is Capone and Norega’s tag-team addition to “Chupa Cabra.” We even get a quality R&B jam with a terrific melody in the Altrina Renee-introducing track, “Facetime.”
It’s refreshing to listen to a hip-hop album from a guy like Raekwon who’s got nothing to prove. “Unexpected Victory”’s success probably wasn’t exactly unexpected, but it’s also certainly not unwelcome.