So this should be simple, right? Second album from the acclaimed Four Owls 'super group', released on High Focus and featuring a guest production from DJ Premier - 5/5, job done!?! Well, almost. It'd be a shame not to say anything about this release, if only for the fact it's a very significant one for UK hiphop - despite coming so early in the year.
The Four Owls, if you didn't know, are Verb T, Fliptrix, BVA and Leaf Dog. In late 2011 they came together, released Nature's Greatest Mystery and propelled themselves to the forefront of the genre. Who'd have thought it would take three years for a follow-up to come out? Though it's not like the guys have been idle in the meantime: Fliptrix has been building High Focus into probably the premier UK hiphop label, Leaf Dog has production credits left, right and centre, Verb T has done another few albums and BVA has been just as busy, being part of Brothers of the Stone and releasing his own album.
Still - three years is a long time and time, as we are forever reminded, waits for no man. Can the Owls manage to soar to the same heights as before, or perhaps improve on them? There were obviously plenty of people waiting to find out as the album rocketed to the top of the iTunes hiphop chart within the first twenty-four hours of release. I'm a fan of the physical copy myself, so I eagerly awaited the postie's arrival.
Thinking back on Nature's Greatest Mystery Leaf Dog's production was a consistent highlight so it's not surprising to find him back behind the boards here (with the obvious exception of Premo's involvement). Surely by now one of the UK's finest producers (just take a look at some of the artists to have graced his beats), it's more than just simply a "safe choice" to use the group member who knows how to make beats. His sample-driven, soulful soundscapes have been a highlight of many tracks over the years though admittedly the fact Leaf Dog has such a close relationship with his crew will be of positive assistance.
Kicking off with Rice Torture the Owls ensure standards are high straight out the gate. With a superb soul-infused beat featuring some delightful 70s movie-style guitar and organ notes the four take their turn on the mic. Leaf Dog gets things going before handing over to BVA, followed by Fliptrix leaving Verb T to bring it home. It's a very strong start; all the verses are tight and they ride the beat smoothly - it's almost like they've done this before...
Back in early January, Silent Flight was released as the first teaser for the album. It's Bird T who takes the lead ths time, his owl-inspired verse focussing on the group's rise to prominence. The piano key and sample-driven backing track serves as the perfect partner, evoking strong golden age memories as Leaf Dog's beats often do. Feels Great is a lighter, somewhat 'summery' track that explores the Owls motivation, past experiences and their passion for the music.
We stay funkier than Parliament / And I don't mean the British government -- Verb T
Think Twice is, of course, the track that probably gets the spotlight treatment (especially outside of these shores). It's a very big deal - I think I'm right in saying this is Premo's first collaboration with a UK hiphop artist and a quick glance at this list, assuming it's up-to-date and correct seems to agree (although there's the work with Slick Rick, but as he's been in the US for 40 years or so can we still claim him?!). Since there's a video for the track, I'll just let it speak for itself:
I can't say I was overly enamoured with Pay the Price. Whilst the rhymes are tight, the beat feels a little at odds with the rest of the album - a little overly experimental, perhaps. Things get back on track very quickly with Defiant, which has become the latest track High Focus have released. So far things have been pretty up-beat and positive. Control switches things up a bit, being more of the sombre persuasion. Leaf Dog slows things down as the Owls ponder altering feelings and mindstates. DJ Sammy B-Side lends his skills to The Four Elements before the first guest shows up on Dawn of a New Day. Fresh from a successful RLD Records debut, Smellington Piff is enlisted for a verse alongside the Owls and he fits in seamlessly, though its BVA who shines brightest for me with a killer verse.
Listen to Defiant:
As the old saying goes, you wait ages for a bus and two turn up at once. Following up one guest spot with another, Dirty Dike joins the crew to ride the sinister production of Assassination. The subject matter turns somewhat grim as the MC's conjure up fantasies of assassination, one that Dike proves particularly adept at as he spits 'dreams of raping a boy band member in the face / and chopping off his bollocks with a spade' ....!!
The mood is less dark on the organ-driven Ain't Like it and ocean(!)-driven The Drama, which blends warped seaside sounds with a laid-back instrumental. On Open Book, High Focus stablemate Jam Baxter delivers a fine performance as each participant weaves book-based imagery (however loosely) into their rhymes. Leaf Dog switches the production style again here, showing a real variety throughout the album yet keeping his sample-based style in the main. He's back on familiar golden age ground though with Judgement, an uptempo banger that utilises a looped string arrangement. The Owls deal with the judgemental attitudes prevalent in society, posing the listener a question as to what they'll do, as Fliptrix offers 'don't ever judge others, judge yourself and make changes'.
To finish off this 16 track opus, we have Old Earth and Motivation. You can hear Old Earth via the video below. It's a brilliant piece of mellow, laid back hiphop with the Owls in reflective mood, paying tribute to those significant others around them who've passed on. A track that perhaps evokes sadness, tries to make sense of moving on - even managing to blend in some humour as BVA fondly reminisces 'say what's up to my grandad, visit for a cuppa / he's a funny fucker'. You can probably guess the topic of Motivation and it does indeed deal with what keeps the Owls going. The beat is slower and I'm not sure the rhymes - despite being of the usual high standard in terms of content - fit particularly well over it. A shame that the album doesn't finish with quite the flourish with which it opens.
Despite the minor mis-steps, The Four Owls have managed to produce an album that will stand firmly in the upper echelons of UK hiphop history. The production is almost faultless for the duration and the rhymes are spot-on, being thoughtful, relevant - even poignant at times. It remains to see if the Premo collaboration will translate to meaningful sales Stateside but if the initial iTunes data is anything to go by, things are encouraging.
It's bordering on ridiculous now that High Focus continues to put out material of such quality, but for a label that's all about the advancement of authentic hiphop it'd make little sense to do otherwise. It's only February yet I'll confidently predict that this will grace many "best of" lists come December and it will certainly be for good reason. A brilliant record.