In his first solo effort, Dilated Peoples member Rakaa Iriscience runs the gamut of topics on Crown of Thorns from political dissidence, recognizing legendary graffiti crews, and life as a traveling musician. It doesn’t take long before realizing that it’s his first time being able to put 100% of himself into a record without the confines and restrictions of band members limiting topic choices, as the entire record is much more personal and introspective than anything else he’s done. This artistic freedom is evident in his selection of producers, including The Alchemist, El-P, dj honda, Oh No!, Sid Roams and Dilated’s own DJ/producer, DJ Babu, as well as the guest features, which include Chali 2na, Fashawn, Aloe Blacc, Evidence, KRS-One, and several others.
Starting off with the Sid Roams-produced title track, “Crown of Thorns” is a look into the life of a musician, from describing the decompression that follows immediately after finishing a show as people are filing out and club employees are cleaning up to the realities of financial hardships that come with the musicians’ territory. The chorus is brilliantly sung by Aloe Blacc, echoing the vibe and theme of the song: “I never thought that life was gonna be this way/But every battle I fight makes me stronger ever day, yes it does/And Lord knows I’ve been through some low valleys/Even though my clothes are torn, my pride is strong/I’m still king in my crown of thorns.”
“The Observatory,” featuring dancehall legend Mad Lion, is a thought-provoking track addressing recent sociopolitical issues while questioning authority and the effects of previous administrations’ policies. Rakaa makes it very clear that he’s politically ambiguous, if not cynical: “I’ve seen Barack’s balance, I’ve seen the flocks worship him/But when they get practical, it slowly starts to hurt again/They ask if I support, I say, ‘I’m a reporter’/I’m under no illusion, yes, we’re under orders.” As the song goes on, the fire intensifies as he ventures into areas that few other rappers would, like touching on the corrupt economics of war and how politicians are profiting: “I’ve seen Haliburton spin off to KBR/Control power, plus modern slavery for a charge/Oil money so slick, get Cheney retired/CEO of the Texas company, moved to Dubai.”
One of the more interesting songs on Crown of Thorns, “Delilah,” was produced by Evidence and is a love song of sorts. The political theme continues on over an incredibly killer beat, even though the politics of relationships and the peculiar dynamics between parties is the focal point. Rakaa relates how miscommunications and misunderstandings have led to more specific problems, but manages to do so without sounding too “emo.”
KRS-One makes an appearance on “Human Nature,” a track examining our connection with the earth and our impact on it. The beat was produced by Exile, but is really nothing too exciting—there’s a vocal sample that briefly washes in and out over a flute loop and choppy drums, and is altogether rather forgettable. However, the presence of “The Teacha” makes this song more compelling, as KRS’s rhyme scheme injects a slightly different vibe to the record, one that only he can bring, with his repeated chorus line: “Understand that I am the breeze/And the trees, oceans and seas.” He goes on to push that structure a little further with his verse, picking up from the chorus with: “I’m floatin with ease with the dopest MCs/When I spit, entertaining cats don’t want to leave/Cuz’ locks are opened with keys/What you know, you perceive/It’s dope what I wrote and nope, it don’t freeze.”
Produced by DJ Babu, also of Dilated Peoples, “C.T.D.” is easily the funkiest, most catchy song on the album that is sure to stick in your head. Not only was it the first choice of songs for Rakaa to record for Crown of Thorns, his delivery energetically skips around, perfectly complimenting the saxophone lines and vocal samples of the jazzy, soul-based beat. Lyrically, it’s the most exciting and dynamic delivery of the record, swinging from braggadocio to generally fun and humorous one-liners, like “Celebrate the new overweight champ,” and “I’ll bench press the U.S.”
The frenetic production of El-P shines on “Mean Streak,” featuring an appearance by Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na. It’s the sound people have come to love and hate from El-P, complete with rigid and rolling drum programming, undulating synth lines, and that echoing vocal “Oh!” on beat four of every other line. It’s an ode to the art of graffiti and the crews that have pushed the art form to the complex level it has currently reached.
A brilliantly conceived song, “Ambassador Slang,” produced by dj honda, features eleven rappers from across the globe, including Korea, New Zealand, Philippines, and Hawaii. Korea’s “Queen of Soul” rapper, Tasha (aka Yoon Mi Rae) kicks off the track by flexing her lyrical muscle, which is surprisingly strong. She is followed by, husband and fellow Korean, Tiger JK, whose verse starts off in English and seamlessly transitions into a crazy Korean ending. With potential to become overwhelmed by hearing so many rappers trade verses, the verses are short enough to not cause anxiety while leaving you wanting more. This is a song that can be listened to repeatedly while hearing something new with each spin.
Even though politics is the running theme of Crown of Thorns, it doesn’t at all feel angry or preachy. The guest appearances and producers are as varied as are his choice of topics, which is very metaphorical for a rapper who is in school for advertising, a student of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and founder of the L.A. chapter of the Universal Zulu Nation. It’s a very solid record, one that really has few weaknesses. Easily one of the best releases so far this year, it probably won’t do the numbers that it should, but is a release that pushes the capabilities and consciousness of other rappers. It really doesn’t matter that Rakka’s lines aren’t the most rhythmically challenging or acrobatic—the effectiveness of his writing more than makes up for his somewhat simplistic delivery. It’s hard to not respect someone who is obviously very well read and on top of current social issues, while rapping about them with a very grounded, levelheaded approach.
Written By Andy Giesen