erasing clouds

The Feenom Circle, Souled Separately

reviewed by ben rubenstein

Upon first opening The Feenom Circle's Souled Separately, I was confronted by a graphic of an angel-figure with headphones around his neck, the cord plugged in to nothing but air, and a star bearing the word "Honesty". This image explains the music on the San Francisco hip-hop group's first major release perfectly, as MC's Oatmeal, Raw J, and Side B rise above much of the vacant lyricism of current popular hip-hop and focus on what's real and true. At the same time, the group clearly draws its sound from a variety of influences, both underground and more mainstream; they are listening to their surroundings and creating a style that fits their lives and goals without alienating fans of catchy hooks and head-nodding beats. While lacking some of the complex wordplay of many collectives, the complexity of their message gives The Feenom Circle a unique personality in hip-hop's overcrowded underground.

When I think of honest, straightforward hip-hop, the first name that comes to mind is Common. The Chicago MC's songs portray life as it is for him, with little pretense or obtuse lyricism. That is not to say that his songs lack complexity, because they feature some of the most densely packed verses in the business, but they speak to the listener by telling tales of reality. At their best, The Feenom Circle finds this same power of truth in its songs; tracks like "Masters Too" and "Circulation" revolve around the group's struggle to gain notoriety and respect for their approach to music. Also, "Nothing Yet", the opener, solidifies the group's underdog status, as well as boasting a beat reminiscent of the heavy bass and fragmented drums of Common and De La Soul's "The Bizness". MC's Raw J, Oatmeal, and Side B have smooth, direct flows, which recall without mimicking a wide variety of rappers, from MC Zion (of fellow Bay-Area collective Zion I) to organic hip-hoppers Infectious Organisms to Talib Kweli.

Fans of battle rhymes will be disappointed with this disc, as the MC's, while boasting, are never about putting others down, but just asking to be respected for their prowess. There has never been much room for bashfulness in the hip-hop game, and the Feenom Circle's pride shines on tracks such as "Circulation", where Side B proclaims "'Cuz when it's laid / it's laced fatter than Puma suedes / the package worth twice the price consumers paid / but we still underpaid, records underplayed / who didn't have enough bread to spread the marmalade?". This sentiment of lack of respect reappears throughout the album.

But again, it's real life that dominates, and the rappers' unique perspectives resonate with the listener on standout tracks such as "I ain't askin'" and "Days Go By". The former, probably the most immediately likable song on the album, is the group's tribute to the some of the women they know and love. Each MC expresses the frustrations that can come with unrequited love, with the hook ("I ain't askin for you to show me no love/interest goes beyond merely hookin up/I ain't askin if I could sew things up/but holler at your folks and see if its sho nuff") demonstrating their ability to craft a catchy lyric that speaks to their true intentions. . One of the best aspects of this track is that it doesn't feel like they're forcing anything; each MC is simply saying what he feels, and it just so happens they do this best when rhyming over shuddering drums and choppy bass. This was the first track that really got my head nodding and hitting the rewind button. "Days Go By" is the epitome of chilled-out hip-hop: understated drums, lilting keys, and smooth, pensive flows. A perfect reference point would be Talib Kweli's seminal "Quality". Part rap, part soul, this song emphasizes the value of taking things slow: "I'm life one step at a time".

But if the MC's are confident in their identities and values, that certainty does not always extend to their songs, as the group makes some questionable choices with a few tracks. "Tunnel Vision", one of the most lyrically rich songs on the album, begins with a spoken-word poem, then somehow tries to fit itself over a Company Flow-esque boombox beat, which doesn't quite work. The blip-bleep electronic feel of "Misunderstanding" gets old quickly, and made me begin to wish for a solid voice among the three MC's. None of them really comes into their own on the song, which is fine for creating a holistic feel, but the lack of identity makes it difficult to grasp the contents of some verses.

While the first listen to Souled Separately might not blow anyone away, these songs deserve further attention in order to fully understand The Feenom Circle's true purpose. It's about creating an aesthetic that speaks to the widening audience of hip-hop, and producing works that stand up to their strong principles. While there are better albums out there both lyrically and in production, the overall feeling and message that are conveyed over the course of this one deserve some respect. It is clear that this is a group still in the growing stages, and I look forward to hearing what they come up with as they build and refine their sound.


Issue 21, March 2004

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