Soul On Fire will be Ethemadassassin's second solo album, following 2008's Tomorrow Never Comes and a recent project with Veteran Eye under the name Veteran Assassins. It plays into the tradition of classic US hip hop with a few elements that anchor it in the present. It's a solid album but it rarely surprises or forces the listener into new territory. At times the album seems to struggle finding its own identity.
The production has an old school tint with big beats and straightforward instrumentation which is effective throughout. Fight Music sees some ragged and tense guitar parts, while 80s And 90s uses bright piano arpeggios as a backdrop for E's verses. The instrumentals come off like an update on the sort of beats you'd expect from US hip hop in the mid 90s. These beats, however, are more abrasive and sometimes more driving, though there are a few tracks which float on a chilled backbeat.
This brings me around to one particular criticism I have; how did a vocal as shockingly cheesy as that featuring on Young And Foolish manage to make it onto an otherwise solid album? The vocal sample – a digitised vocal line repeating in over-strained, computerised tones that, '…Growing up I just wanted to shine like a star' – feels particularly strange in context with the rest of the album. There are a couple of moments like this, but Martin H's vocal on this track feels like the main offender. As a concept this track falls pretty flat as well. It's essentially the classic 'I'm at the bottom but one day I want to be partying, rich and at the top' track. Needless to say, it's played out.
Young And Foolish is the first track to feature guest emcees as well. This strikes me as a good choice. Some hip hop albums can feel more like they were made by a loose collective than a solo artist. E's verse on this track is the standout by far but some of the most uninspired lyrics on the album come from his guests here. The other verses from Veteran Eye and Sherman Way sound almost like they could have come from a hip hop by numbers guide, which is to say, it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a certain type of hip hop track. There are lyrics about being a great tipper at bars, thus successfully marrying the stereotypes of disposable income and materialism with those of hip hop's position in party culture with exceptional ease. Later in the track there's quality metaphors such as, 'I've got the keys to life, they hang from my ignition'.
Maybe it's best not to dwell on the Young And Foolish and rather to mention that E's rhyme schemes and flow are tight and hold the album's momentum. At the start of Sparta he makes use of repetitive rhymes, presumably to maintain his rhyme scheme and flow but it comes off as a small oversight. That isn't to say that most of his lyrics aren't well crafted. For the most part, they are. Gratitude is a stand out track with lyrics that will force you to take them in, 'I'm not the example of living, I'm the spectacle… my nigga Truck took a bullet to his testicles'. These sorts of lyrics pack the content thick and leave a strong, if unpleasant, aftertaste of the world that Ethemadassassin is documenting. This is really where E shines and you'll hear some of this realist, street approach to lyricism in tracks like lead single Tiger Blade.
Instrumentals on this album seem to trail off, unfortunately. By the end they seem to have moved toward an ever-so-slightly R'n'B flavour with instrumentation and vocal samples that give it a more commercial vibe. That isn't necessarily a bad thing if you enjoy hip hop of a more mainstream nature but it does again bring up questions as to the album's identity. On one hand it seems like a gritty hip hop piece from the streets, with titles like Fight Music and Sparta but there's moments that feel out of place and alien. It's hard to say exactly what Ethemadassassin was trying to do. A few choices on the album leave me hoping that billboard chart positions and MTV plays weren't deciding factors when it came to putting Soul On Fire together.
Other reviews have cited an over use of movie samples to begin and end tracks. One review referred to this technique as 'boring'. I disagree staunchly. In fact, I think these samples, even when you cannot catch them word for word, are one of the elements that do anchor the album as a single piece. It gives it some of the atmosphere – which tends to run on the darker side of hip hop – that cements the listener in Soul On Fire. Atmosphere is one thing this album does particularly well and with the exception of a couple of tracks that knock the listener out of the overall vibe of the album, this is one of its best features.
In short, Soul On Fire is a decent hip hop album, if a mostly safe one. Sometimes it veers into cliché but generally it runs a comfortable path somewhere between classic hip hop and commercialism. The real standout of the album is the beats, which are almost all of a high standard. E himself is on form but this feels like an album he didn't break much of a sweat recording.
By: Andy Fletcher