Cali Agents

How the West Was One (Ground Control)

Rasco and Planet Asia, two of underground hip-hop's most consistently solid MCs, united under the alias Cali Agents with the lofty intention of making high-quality rap music commercially viable again. Both having established themselves on their own -- The Source voted Rasco's debut solo album "Independent Record of 1998," while Planet Asia has developed one of the most talked-about flows in all of hip-hop -- the longtime friends decided to join forces in hopes of translating their grassroots fan bases into real-life sales figures. If mike-crushing rhyme routines and uncommonly solid beats from a sampling of indie hip-hop's most inspired producers mean a record will sell, then How the West Was Oneshould go multiplatinum. If history goes on repeating itself, the album has a snowball's chance of breaking gold.

As Asia puts it on the title track, "It's been a long time since you've heard two tight ass emcees/Make a record for the love of it, and still succeed." A really long time. It's not that any of the cuts on the album are inaccessible -- or even anything less than catchy -- it's just that the hip-hop artists who crack the pop charts these days are almost always affiliated with some fabulously rich superstar or a glitzy record label. A healthy dose of R&B vocals and bouncy club tracks don't hurt, either. Rasco and Asia are about as likely to make such concessions as Puff Daddy is to trade his house in the Hamptons for street cred. So maybe everything is exactly how it should be after all.

While beat-making duties are split among nine different producers, most of the instrumentals are founded on similar elements: diced-up piano samples, hard drum patterns and melody dropouts, an aesthetic pioneered by DJ Premier and most often cited as the hallmark of classic hip-hop. The most textbook Premier track, "Neva Forget," is also the most likely candidate to see light beyond his devoted fans -- a repetitive guitar loop infectious enough for radio airplay and yet still appealing to the most gimmick-wary. None of the beats are especially innovative besides "Real Talk," which features a xylophone and a bizarre chorus delivered by Rasco in tandem with an uncredited female vocalist. The Agents' m.o. isn't to push the art form into uncharted territory, but to prove how much untapped creative energy lies within the music in its rawest form.

They accomplish this through extremely precise word play and even more exacting meter. Some might have trouble warming to Rasco's style for this very reason, and, admittedly, his almost obsessively concise flow is often too one-dimensional to carry a track on its own. That's where Asia steps in, as his tongue is more nimble and prone to switching up delivery where his partner's will not, providing the perfect foil to Rasco's direct attack. For the hip-hop enthusiast or just anyone wanting to see where the music has gone beyond the charts, How the West Was One is well worth seeking out.

 
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