Issue #155: The Preface by Elzhi
April 1, 2019
Released On August 12, 2008
Released By Fat Beats Records
There are so many factors that determine who inhabits my personal list of favorite emcees: voice, presence, wordplay, versatility, verbal dexterity, breath control, cadences, flows, punchlines, storytelling ability. I could go on. However, there’s one requirement that ranks above all else — do you make me press rewind? And yes, I realize that I just dated myself.
When I was a teenager, I would record the latest underground hip hop records on cassette from my favorite radio shows while trouncing through my homework. This was the late nineties, so there was a wealth of slick tongued emcees chomping at the bit to become the next big thing. There were the glorious young versions of Eminem and Canibus, who would light up Napster every time someone would upload a new freestyle. There was Big L creating his own buzz with a series of incredible 12-inch releases that would seemingly dominate college radio for years, and later became classics after his untimely death. Virginia’s own Mad Skillz would mount a similar charge on the underground circuit, burning up the airwaves and DSL cables with verses and freestyles that had your favorite rappers sweating bullets. The point is, all of these artists constantly made me hit the rewind button. “What did he just say?” “Wait a second… there’s no way he just rhymed those two things together.” Or more commonly, a line would be so amazing that I would be too busy laughing or overcome with wonder that I would miss the next few rhymes that followed. This is what I love most about my favorite emcees, and Elzhi led the next generation to carry that mantle.
Traditionally in rap, the new hot emcee is brought up through a series of guest appearances on other rappers’ songs. Artists like DMX and Canibus seemingly built their entire careers from a handful of stellar guest spots. Although this approach has the positive effect of putting your name on everyone’s (ahem) radar, the unintended consequence is a tremendous amount of pressure for the artist to put together a debut album worthy of the buzz they created. It’s often a massive failure, but not in the case of The Preface.
If you’re a basketball fan of a certain age you remember growing up with Michael Jordan’s Come Fly With Me — the ultimate highlight reel chronicling Michael’s meteoric rise through his first five years in the NBA. The Preface follows nearly the same blueprint: all dunks and rewind-able moments. It’s just El’s general disposition that seemingly any random verse features multiple eye-popping couplets, but The Preface showcases his conceptual genius, his ability to box himself into constraints that raise the level of difficulty, and consequently our level of enjoyment. There’s the interactive “Guessing Game,” which employs the listener to finish El’s words before he says them. This has never been done in rap before or since. One of the hallmarks of rap is the listener not knowing what’s coming next. “Colors” finds El magically weaving a palette of colors into his verses that would have Crayola double-checking their inventory. Somehow, he finds more than a handful of rhyming combinations to assign words to a single acronym on “D.E.M.O.N.S..” And then there’s the stunning “Talking In My Sleep” — a vivid dream sequence of David Lynch proportions set to music. Personally, I haven’t been this entranced in a single rap “story” track since Nas’ epic “I Gave You Power.” You may have noticed that I haven’t quoted a single lyric so far. I can’t decide. There’s too many. But most of all, reading these lyrics will never do them justice. Showing you a few answers from the crossword puzzle doesn’t have nearly the same effect as seeing the entire completed puzzle, and how everything fits together perfectly.
There’s a second piece to the greatness of The Preface, and that’s the absolutely filthy production from Black Milk. From beginning to end, his soulful chops and knocking drums provide the perfect bed of nails for El’s hellfire. To fans of the underground, such a cohesive union would seem obvious given both Elzhi and Black Milk’s close affiliation to Detroit kings Slum Village. Sometimes a beat can overpower an emcee or vice versa, but not here. The Preface features beats and rhymes that are perfectly worthy of each other, and I can’t stress how rare that is, especially for a 16 song album. I also can’t stress how much I appreciate this level of excellence from an artist/producer tandem. Moreover, I feel like this project went a long way in Black Milk establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with, and although a disciple of J Dilla, not a clone of J Dilla (Black’s future work would further this narrative exponentially). Plus, in my book he cemented his status as an elite beatmaker with the instrumental for “Motown 25” alone.
So many people my age are bored with rap. And I get it; most of the new stuff is less than desirable. But there’s still so much greatness out there if you just search for it. That search is what made us fall in love with a lot of our favorite music in the first place, right? The best compliment I can give to Elzhi and Black Milk is that The Preface is the perfect album to give to your friends that think they’re bored with rap.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Detroit born. Slum Village raised. Driven by expertise and ingenuity.
It may be that in rural America, folks roll the windows down in their pickup trucks and blast Led Zep, AC/DC, and Sabbath, but in NYC, where I grew up, such public displays of musical affection are almost entirely reserved for funk, R&B, and hip hop. As a bass-loving youth, I reveled in the sound of subterranean tones moving past me, the Doppler effect pronounced enough so it felt like it was moving through me. That’s right where my mind went when I first played Elzhi’s The Preface, blown away by the seismic production even before I knew it was mostly the work of one of Detroit’s finest, Black Milk, whose FEVER was one of the best hip hop albums of 2018. Then, gradually, Elzhi’s prowess came in to focus and I began to appreciate the totality of The Preface. His energy impresses throughout, that sense of urgency that brings you in and makes you listen closely. Lyrically speaking, he shows a lot of creativity. In “Guessing Game,” he splits words to play with meanings embedded in their syllables (“I had this girl in my bed / And every time she opened up her mouth she was givin’ me head / aches”) — it’s quite a stunt! “Colors” uses up a rainbow or two while telling street stories (“They sell purples through Blackberries with the Bluetooth”) and “Talking In My Sleep” finds him getting snatched “out of one dream and into another,” like a hip hop version of Dylan’s “Series Of Dreams“. As someone who loves Detroit hip hop, such as phenomenal rapper Guilty Simpson (who shows up here on “Fire“) or the game-changing work of Black Milk and Elzhi’s mentor, the late great J. Dilla, The Preface is one album I wish I had heard before its 10th anniversary had passed. But it’s never too late to discover a great record so now is the time to let its deep bass and clever wordplay reverberate through your life.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Picking up this week’s selection, the first thing I did was look to the discography that followed this 2008 release. Writing for OYR, I have a grace in that I am very often looking backward into an artist, seeing an album released in the context of an entire career, and with a name like The Preface, my curiosity drove me to see just exactly what this preceded for Elzhi. As I told one student who’s decided to use his time with me to write a book, a preface is unlike a prologue in that it’s not part of the story, but something you want to tell your readers, straight from creator to partaker, but as I came up empty-handed in terms of Elzhi’s work, I dove into this selection with the mind to figure out just where he’s coming from with a title like that. Luckily, the journey didn’t disappoint. Rapping against a rich fabric of sound, with samples and allusions to hip hop and rap of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Elzhi works against that backdrop to get your head nodding before you realize what exactly he’s saying. In “Intro (The Preface),” a quick quip where he tells you that radio rap is some fake ass shit, setting up a rebuke of modern music not uncommon in any kind of indie or not-mainstream music. The album that follows supports that point, with that rich musical background over which Elzhi speaks about relationships, the street, rap, his life, anything he wants, a relentless flow against the guns-money-hos hardcore mainstream rap often presents. In listening the week, Elzhi seems more to view this album as a preface against what you might listen to after you hear these words, a message from this rapper to the listeners of other artists to refresh your palette before you dive back into the trap of radio hits.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Lots can be said and has been said about the formulaic nature of pop music. There is no question that as the mainstream public move along trend lines, the tracks that dominate the charts, often regardless of genre, contain certain traits in common. If the ’80s were all about gated, compressed drums, then the 2010s were about the rise of lazy-lipped rap in R&B and autotune. But it never ceases to amaze me that some of the best artists in hip hop seem to fly below the radar of the mainstream despite making all the right musical moves. They can be called legends in their own regions and yet not even the internet seems to carry their name far enough to make an impact on the larger mainstream scale. The first time I was introduced to Elzhi was in writing this article. I fancied myself someone who was quite familiar with Detroit rappers and yet from out of nowhere, I am hearing this record The Preface from 2008 which no longer appears on modern streaming services but yet is end-to-end full of strong production quality, hard hitting boom-bap beats and enough talented flow to carry him through several more records in the years since. The Preface is classic hip hop in the sense that it includes the strong elements that made the greatest records great. Producer and fellow Detroit legend Black Milk produced the record, which aggressively and messily chops and drops samples in a way that could be considered ahead of its time. It’s almost disrespectful to the listener in some of the relentless tight loops which pulse through hooks which are themselves almost entirely chopped vocal or key samples. It’s a style very similar to the production Open Mic Eagle uses to this day. Even Danny Brown makes an appearance on this eclectic collection of hip hop tracks which run the full course from heavy to the more lighthearted and mellow. Slum Village, where Elzhi got his start, is more of a household name than he is despite the fact that these tracks have an even more timeless appeal. Listening to this for the first time, it could have been made in 2019 so do yourself a favour and forget for a moment that Elzhi isn’t sitting at the top of the charts right now. He ought to have been in 2008 and it would seem that that year’s critics would agree with that sentiment. The people, for whatever reason did not favour it (or perhaps hear it) in enough numbers to give it the playtime it deserves. It no formula, but Elzhi made all the right moves to put together a hip hop record that stands the test of time — and it’s never too late to right a wrong.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
“I stuck to my guns and came out blazin’ / Amazin’ poetry, for sure it’s the invasion”
Earlier this year, I was looking over my listening habits from 2018 and I realized that I needed to inject more hip-hop into my life to balance out everything else, especially all the metal. As such, last month I began going through all of Eminem’s albums chronologically, which happened to coincide with the 20th anniversary of The Slim Shady LP. I bring this up not just because The Preface is a rap record, but also because there are some striking similarities between the two artists. There are the obvious ones: a penchant for alliteration, technical skill, and limiting features only to those that elevate a work. But there is also a less obvious one: a gifted ear for beat selection. Well, Em used to have one. Mainly, though, it’s the wordplay that stood out to me. Elzhi does the simple (“I stand out like nose rings”), the clever (“Flow is harder than a German major”), and the playing-around-with-words-and-sounds lines (“I’m higher than the jeans on Urkel, then I murk you”) and does them all well. [A semi-related site note: I’ve been listening to The Marshall Mathers LP since the day it came out, and just last week I noticed the pun within the line, “Apparently you ain’t parents.” Wordplay FTW.] Yet, while there are several similarities between these two rappers, I don’t think Eminem has ever tried something as high-concept as “Guessing Game.” That’s some seriously next-level shit, and it impressed the hell outta me — even more so than the scene-stealing verse from Royce. From here, I could go on about Black Milk’s fantastic production throughout, or talk about the superb chemistry in the posse cut “Fire,” or any number of other things to highlight. Instead, I’ll just say that is a great album that I really like.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
There was a time when I would tell anyone caught in one of my rants on how Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is the greatest album ever made, that hip-hop is the contemporary equivalent to the 1960s American folk music revival. When I made this argument, I had socially conscious music in mind—artists like Common, Kendrick Lamar, and The Roots — rappers who focus on issues like police brutality, institutionalization, and black masculinity in their verses. Listening to Elzhi’s The Preface, I realize that my assessment was sort of reductive, not just because hip-hop stands alone and needs no comparisons for justification, but also because to only acknowledge the socially conscious rap artists as relevant to society is to turn a blind eye to the ways that ‘for art’s sake’ rappers depict realities of the black experience. This album is full of braggadocio, and while a number of tracks like “Colors” and “The Science” do tackle the more common issues associated with blackness, the majority of this album is a very confident and personal work that drips with self-assurance. The Preface does more to acknowledge and question African-American’s relationships with one another, than it does to challenge America as a racist institution. This approach almost does more to counter stereotypes than directly addressing the issues does, because the characters in Elzhi’s verses are completely formed individuals who exist outside of the narrow racial confines that often reduce black men and women into stock characters. Elzhi’s The Preface stands as a strong justification for and embodiment of legitimate black art having no definite shape. Also, I appreciated the shout-out to Dilla.
Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965
Full of clever themes and tricks, The Preface surprises in its smooth cohesion and seamless flow.
On an evening run earlier this week, I listened to the first episode in the second season of Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Record podcast, in which Gladwell moderated a fascinating meeting of the minds: the drummer and overall musical luminary Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and the producer and overall musical luminary Rick Rubin. Early on, Thompson described some family-friendly DJ gigs he’s been hosting lately this way: “It’s my version of reinventing hip hop. Because hip hop is supposed to be a community-based, afternoon sort of thing.” From the moment I dropped into The Preface — ironically at third track “Guessing Game,” because of iCloud uploading issues — I heard that original, educational ideal of rap music in action. The song walks you through a key technique that hip hop loves but that truly spans all genres, from rock to classical: the generation and fulfillment of expectation: “I’m end up each and every line just the same-same / You fill in the blank before I say it, that’s the aim-aim.” The nod to the audience and the invitation into the mechanics of hip hop lyrics calls to mind a favorite tune that this week’s Off Your Radar curator clued me into in high school: Big L’s “Ebonics,” which is as brilliant a slang dictionary as you’ll find. Then I got to “Colors,” which starts out “Settle down class, take your seats / Pull out the manual and turn to chapter three / We about to learn the lesson on color schemes.” Elzhi has a way of pulling you in — setting up a framework for the listening experience that follows. The Preface deftly incorporates other lyrical devices, but this is the one that grabbed me — and made me hear the others that much more clearly.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
While hip-hop has not really been at the top of my list, there’s no denying that this album has great rhythm and Elzhi has a great lyrical flow. I really enjoy the use of different instruments and musical elements in each one of the tracks. I get some serious Biggie vibes from this album, and ’90’s Hip Hop in general really, although I could be a little off. But there is something to be said for being open minded and I am always open to checking out something I’ve never heard before, almost always ending up pleasantly surprised. Above all the great tracks, I really enjoyed “Colors” — it had a repetitive backing track that just reminded me of a pool day in the summer and looking out at the dumping of snow we just got again (come on!) I needed that.
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
I love movies that excel in the second viewing — where you pick up on the clues and the subtle details sprinkled in the background of a scene. With that said though, I often find myself putting off that second viewing when I can, to the point that I remember the outline and story, but forget the scenes and dialogue to make them stand out more. It took me probably a decade to watch The Sixth Sense again and I still haven’t seen Memento and Donnie Darko again. There are some TV shows too — the Brendan Fraiser episode of Scrubs and the countdown episode of How I Met Your Mother — but thanks to modern day binging, I don’t put those ones off as much as I’d like. Of course, there are records too, though the ones I’m normally drawn to are those intricately layered art or pop records where you pick up a counter-melody or instrumental fill in the background of a crowded song that just makes it that much more impactful and meaningful. I’ve often shied away from putting rap albums in this category, mostly because I naturally end up listening to them two, three, four, or five times anyway just because there’s no way I could soak it all up in the first listen. It’s not so much about finding the subtleties when I do this — more to make sure I caught everything you’re supposed to on a first listen. Listening to The Preface is different. I’m not saying I catch everything around the first time in order to comb over for hints and Easter eggs the second time around, but it definitely made me want to do that — find all the wordplay elements of “Guessing Game” or soak up the hypnagogic atmosphere of “Talking In My Sleep.” So here I am, typing this up, listening to The Preface for the fifth 2nd time (tenth overall if you’re following my logic), trying to comb through the details of “Save Ya” — a stellar track that’s one of the few not produced by the insanely talented Black Milk. If this is just a preface to Elzhi’s work, how the hell am I ever going to make time to go through the rest?
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
We Don’t Stand A Chance by AM Taxi
Chosen By Dustin Gates