When news dropped that Mars Ill's sophomore Gotee release would be delayed yet again, hip-hop fans were undoubtedly left disappointed. A lot of fans were eagerly anticipating the release of Pro Pain, so its delay meant that Mars Ill would have several months of dead air to fill before its release. So the problem arises: what does a critically acclaimed hip-hop duo do to appease fans in the months before the release of a highly anticipated project? Well if you're Mars Ill, why not put out an independent album while you're waiting? Better yet, make it a fan project and release the CD exclusively through your website.
It's the oldest trick in the book, really. When a band needs to buy time in between releases, they don't want to keep their fans waiting. So they put out a "stop-gap" project - something to tide fans over (and build interest) before they put out the official product. TobyMac did it with Re:Mix Momentum, remixing his debut album before releasing Welcome to Diverse City, and Mae put out a Destination: b-sides record before cranking out their sophomore release. So as stop-gaps go, is Pirate Radio nothing more than a remix or b-sides project? Luckily for fans, the answer is a resounding "no!" Not content to just sit back and rest on their laurels, Mars Ill pulled out all the stops and recorded fifteen brand-new and unreleased tracks for Pirate Radio.
Mars Ill certainly didn't slack with this CD and its independent status is by no means a hindrance to its quality. The great thing about Pirate Radio is that Dust (production, beats) and manCHILD (emcee, vocals) are among the best at what they do and they pick up right where they left off from Backbreakanomics. Those who fell in love with the sound of their last album will certainly not be disappointed with their approach on Pirate Radio. The backbone of Mars Ill's distinctive sound is built upon DJ Dust's top-notch production work and Dust's beats still incorporate plenty of live bass & drums as before. He layers guitar and keyboard elements on top (even some occasional horns), giving each track a very raw and organic feel. It's a nice break from the over-produced sounds of modern hip-hop and it is Dust's approach to production that separates Mars Ill from their hip-hop peers. Far removed from the "hip-pop" approach of Gotee labelmate John Reuben or even the slick top-40 sound of fellow rappers Grits, Mars Ill makes no apologies for its underground sound. Staying true to one's hip-hop roots while remaining accessible at the same time is a hard trick to pull off, but Mars Ill is getting increasingly comfortable with blending both aspects of their identity.
Besides the beats, the other half of the Mars Ill equation is the outstanding vocal work of emcee manCHILD. Throughout Pirate Radio manCHILD raps with his trademark flow, peppering each track with classic verses and inventive rhymes - paying homage to his hometown on "A*T*lanta" and alluding to the pushed-back Pro Pain on the title track. It also seems that whatever Dust lays down, manCHILD can rhyme over. Whether it's the staggered rhythms of "The Beautiful Hustle" or the sample-heavy "You Can't Stop," manCHILD showcases his versatility on every track - his vocals complementing the production perfectly.
With the killer duo of Dust and manCHILD at the top of their game and holding nothing back, it would be unfair to consider Pirate Radio as simply a stop-gap project. The fifteen tracks Mars Ill has to offer on the project are so consistent that it's hard to imagine that the main event, Pro Pain, is still yet to come. Pirate Radio is such an outstanding release that it's almost a shame that this album won't get the kind of mainstream exposure it deserves. Independent or not, a project of this caliber deserves to be heard!
In the grand scheme of things, Pirate Radio succeeds in following up the critically acclaimed Backbreakanomics, while at the same time, raising expectations for the upcoming Pro Pain. And if this record is any indication of things to come, Pro Pain should be well worth the wait!- Review date: 3/16/05, written by Sherwin Frias
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