I’ll tell you this, naming your album Masterpiece, in general is not a good idea. Anything short of phenomenal and you are setting yourself up for overly-critical critiques and a endless influx of challenging jokes. At the very least, the album needs to be the best you ever done. That is not the case here. However, all is not lost, there are still several redeeming qualities on this album simply titled “Masterpiece”.
When I picked up the first single, “The Music”, I was a bit disappointed. It takes my biggest complaint of “The Desolate One” and expands on it and not in a good way. The track is all mellowed out and it has a slow bouncy beat that makes you want to do silly dances… Not the sort of reaction I want from a Just-Ice song. The 12” came not only with a “Club Mix”, “Radio Edit” and “Instrumental”, but also a “Dub Mix”, that we don’t need. An acapella would have been far more useful. The rhyming is actually decent, but when paired with that back-drop it just doesn’t hold your attention.
Don’t get me wrong all of the production isn’t bad. Grandmaster Flash is talented with sampler in hand and behind the boards. However, this is 1990, the start of what I refer to as the “Production Era”. This is a time when the Producer finally became nearly as important as the artist. There was a wealth of talented Producers making their mark on the scene at the time, fine-tuning and creating new sampling techniques that are still virtually the standards today. Grandmaster Flash just wasn’t competing on that level.
The reasoning for Just-Ice and Grandmaster Flash collaborating made perfect sense. Every album Just-Ice professed his love for the Old School and it was only fitting for him to connect with one of the most skilled artists from that era to do a project. In an interview I found online, Just-Ice said that one of the reasons he teamed up with Flash was because there were certain breaks he wanted to rhyme over that no one else seemed to have, but he heard Flash play them at the jams back in the day. It’s that theory that makes this album very admirable in concept. Unfortunately, it falls short on actually nailing it.
I think it’s safe to say that the primary issue is the production. It’s unfortunate because I feel it was production that really stalled and slowed Just-Ice’s career. Can you imagine if he had connected with a producer like Showbiz, Ced Gee, Tony D (Tony Depula R.I.P), or maybe even DJ Aladdin. They all were on fire at that time and constructing just the kind of sound that would have been perfect for Just-Ice*. Rhyming wise, Just-Ice is solid thru out. He is arguably better than he was on “The Desolate One”…more focused.
The album starts with “Get Into Something” which is a nice up-tempo joint that makes nice use of the popular “UFO” sample by ESG. Just-Ice is just kicking battle rhymes and it sounds good.
Up next is “Ice Man Cometh” and it basically defines the issue with the album. Many of the beats are borderline New Jack Swing and that is at it’s worst here (or best if you are into that sort of thing…ha) and on “Keep To Myself”, which is later in the album and is heavier on that vibe. What I don’t get is, if you have a song like that on the album you might as well release it as a single. It was even a better choice then “The Music” if they were going for a possible “hit”. Sure, it was still unlikely, but probably had a better chance. Even if it sounds a bit like a tongue-in-cheek mash-up with a DJ having the idea of taking the roughest voice in rap and pairing it with a Teddy Riley beat for surprised reactions…that’s essentially what it sounds like.
There’s a noticeable absence of Reggae flavor on the album, “Ice Man Cometh” & “Keep To Myself” are among the few moments representing that which was usually a prominent essence of Just-Ice. Which is kind of weird, that he did it on both the New Jack Swing-ish tracks, maybe he should have created a new genre, New Jack Reggae…ha. Actually, that probably existed. If you know it did, don’t tell me, I’d rather just be in the dark about that one. In any event, the rhyming on here is solid, although sounding a bit rushed with the delivery. With a remix and slowing the pace slightly, we could have another solid track.
The first verse of “Flavor” is basically a promo for a club night, Thursday nights with DJ Kid Capri at The Castle from 10 PM-3 AM. Yep, he basically flips all the standard flyer info and then some on the verse, but with style. The rest of the track he kicks it more Freestyle Flavor, while also sprinkling some consciousness in there and also gives an important shout out, “Peace to our first Black Mayor” and makes a plea to free Nelson Mandela. It’s also a great example of his swift flow.
“Slow, Low & Dope” is built off the rhythm of Nite-Liters “Afro Strut”…or at least I think it is. It sounds like it, but different…perhaps it’s replayed. I’m horrible at the sample game... Anyway, although it’s also got that bouncy feel, it’s just raw enough to work. Just-Ice sounds real comfortable on here and delivers some of his best lyrics and technical rapping of the time.
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“Rollin With The Just” is pretty great. I’m mad at myself because I know that I know the sample(s) used here. I have them…but I’m drawing a blank. FAIL. Anyway, on the quick flow tip Just-Ice drops raw lyrics, “Don’t preach to no man, with your heart it’s not felt/Take all that your saying and apply it to yourself/Don’t try to be my teacher cause you talk too much/Step up and get down, cause you’re rolling with the Just!” and “As I walk, people stalk and hawk/And they talk about me, how I be and try to fault me/But I say shove it to the eye of the public/Take it or leave it, like it or love it/Too immense to be stopped, to smart to be out-foxed/ To clever, I could never be knocked out the box/Destroying what I’m touching, care about nothing…” That line of thinking continues on to the next track…
[audio:http://www.fifthelementonline.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/07-Rollin-With-The-Just.mp3|titles=07 Rollin With The Just]
“Round-N-Round” is the song that best captures the Just-Ice we all know and love. Grandmaster Flash finds the right foundation for Just-Ice to express his angry thoughts. It’s slow, bass-heavy, and menacing. The song is ultimately about people trying to push you in certain directions of how you make your music or live your life. Just-Ice decides to go the opposite direction, assumably just to make a point. I don’t think we are supposed to take him verbatim when he announces in the opening dialog, “Get up on the dance-floor, get hard, go rob somebody. Say yes to drugs…Start violence…all that, know what I’m saying”. I’m assuming his point is that everyone is telling you what you should do and if you try to follow what everyone wants you are just be going round-n-round in a circle, ultimately getting nowhere. His extreme push to the negative is possibly a call to “Just do whatever YOU want” or designed to be reverse psychology, pushing you so far that you want to go the other way. Who knows what his true point was? Maybe both. Maybe neither. What I do know is the result is some classic brutal Justicizms on the mic. He refers to himself as “Radical, but practical”. He warns, “To the media, I don’t really like what’s going down/You never know when Just-Ice is gonna be around-n-round”.
“Tell It Like It is” also has that Swing feel, but it sounds closer to a DJ Cash Money & Marvelous production than a Teddy Riley one…minus those rugged Philly drums. That’s Grandmaster Flash’s biggest drawback as a producer on this one. His drums don’t hit and they just sound too “playful”. There are a couple comments he made on this record that made me wonder about the relationship with him and KRS One at the time. Particularly this, “How the hell can you stop violence hour on the hour/Power respects no logic, Power respects power!” Of course, just the previous year Just-Ice was among the several featured artists alongside KRS One on his “Self-Destruction” project, a part of the Stop The Violence Movement…
I’ve made this point before, but I generally ignore Hip Hop ballads or songs about women in general. I give them the 30-second A&R listen and if they sound corny, misogynistic, or just non-engaging, then I move on. That’s what happened with the album closer, “I Write This In The Dark”. Soon as I heard that Smooth Jazz beat, generic singing and then Just-Ice come in with his soft-spoken approach, a la LL Cool J “I Need Love”**, I was done. Far as I was concerned, the album ended with “Tell It Like It Is”.
However, listening now I applaud Just-Ice and shame myself***. The song isn’t corny, lyrically speaking. It’s a real heart-felt and respectable song that is dedicated to the mother of his children. I wish more “Hardcore” artists could be that open and honest about their feelings rather than always trying to be tough and play it cool about how they feel about their significant other. The song serves as an apology for his faults and his professing that he will be true, good, and there for her if they can work things out. Yes, even the Gangster Of Hip Hop can share his feelings. As a matter of fact, that IS Gangster.
Basically the deal with "Masterpiece" is the production isn’t up to par for the times. That in mind, if you never heard this album before and don’t have that frame of reference it might sound a little better. If you heard the album back then and didn’t like it, give it another spin, it might also sound better now, void of the comparison of the times. There’s some good moments and at least 3 tracks on here that I would include on my Just-Ice Greatest Hits CD; “Rolling With The Just”, “Slow, Low, & Dope” (maybe) and definitely, “Round-N-Round”.
*Particularly Showbiz here. His raw stripped down drums would have been perfect for Just-Ice…although I suppose Showbiz perfected that sound a little later than this album. That in mind, I think the best fit might have been Tony D. He had hardcore beats and he was great finding vibes to fit Reggae flavor in his work with Poor Righteous Teachers, who happened to sample Just-Ice vocals on a few occasions. Ced Gee definitely had the raw drum sound in this era so that could have been a great hook up. Aladdin might be a oddball choice, but try to imagine Just-Ice on some of those Low Profile beats or the tracks he produced for Ice T’s “O.G.” record!
**OK, it’s not “that” soft…ha
***Well, only half shame myself. That beat has to take the bulk of the blame…