I ain't tryin' bring New York back
I'm just a breath of fresh air
That good old New York rap.
After the proclamation of "Yo do me a favor? Accidentally step on your white sunglasses, we don't wear those out here, this is hip-hop. This is Carhartt jackets, Timberland boots, unlaced, this is Champion hoodies, chicken wings and french fries, R.I.P. pieces on the handball court, this is us still fighting police brutality" that plays at the intro of Joell Ortiz's "Hip Hop," the lines that similarly open my review and the actual verses of the song allow me to say without reservation that Ortiz is the most refreshing voice I've heard from the genre since I first started listening.
Ortiz hails from Brooklyn, as so many of hip-hop's greats before him have, and it's fitting, because even in moments of typical hip-hop bravado, like the line in the autobiographical "125 Part 1," Ortiz knows and respects those who paved the way: "KRS responded with one word -- damn, the cypher's complete once he shake Rakim's hand." The track plays out like a point-to-point account of how Ortiz broke into hip-hop, and at six minutes without need of a hook or a chorus, it allows those listening to delve deep into the layers of intelligence and introspection that will brilliantly fold out over the course of the album.
His smooth-as-silk style has already garnered him fitting comparisons to another lyrically dexterous New York City native, Big Pun, but it's those repeated mentions of hip-hop's past, as in the aforementioned "Hip Hop," that really make me smile, because Ortiz is clearly an emcee who gets it. He doesn't name-drop, he pays homage, and it makes lines like "I don't feel how I used to feel, I'm in the 20's so a new Nas joint used to give me the chills" feel all the more geniune. The simplistic keyboard and snare production provide the perfect platform for Ortiz to profess his love for the genre as well as reinforcing the fact that though the production all over the album is amazing, it's never about that. It's about the lyrics. In fact, the only song of the album's 15 that could even pass for a club single is "Keep on Callin'," a quick but no less impressive song that features a crisp beat and Akon on the chorus. It's one of the better songs on the record, as much because of the production as the stay-strong message:
Easter day everybody got fresh, me I just tried to look my best / Poked out my chest, never let 'em see me sweat / These are the things I used to wanna forget, now I'm glad I remember.
As with any hip-hop, though, it's not all the lyrics, but also how they're delivered. That said, the variety from top to bottom on The Brick looks all the better, from the strikingly fierce wordplay of "125 Part II," a song which chronicles the struggles that come with an aspiring rap career, to the much more slower and deliberate social salvos of the Immortal Technique-accompanied "Modern Day Slavery," he's able to run the gamut. He can deliver metaphor and literal meaning with equal potency, and not for a single moment anywhere on the record does it sound as if he's trying to do too much. He knows what he's capable of, and he knows how far above most emcees it puts him ("don't confuse him with these other cats / he's a full workout, they three jumping jacks").
Even if you're not a fan of hip-hop whatsoever, you'd be doing yourself a favor to give Mr. Ortiz a moment of your time; that's all it will take. All it took was the first minute of "125 Part 1" for me to pause and just say damn. This, this my friends, this is hip-hop. It's what every earnest kid rapping to his friends on a street corner hopes to once attain, and it's what Brooklyn's finest export, the late great Notorious B.I.G. had in mind when he penned the words "sky's the limit."