When rapper Talib Kweli rolled through Cincinnati a few years back, he met Hi-Tek, a producer who was a member of the rap group Mood. They collaborated on Mood's full-length debut, 1997's Doom, and have been tight ever since. Kweli enlisted Hi-Tek for both Black Star's album and his own record, last year's acclaimed Reflection Eternal. In short, by working with Kweli, Hi-Tek has connected with some of hip-hop's most talented new stars while living in a city not known for manufacturing hip-hop. And he's all too aware of that idiosyncrasy on a solo debut that's loaded with guest appearances and shout-outs.
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In a press photo, Hi-Tek sports a Reds jersey and cap, and Cincinnati is referenced numerous times in the lyrics provided by the guest rappers (maybe they're the ones who really feel the need to show the Midwest some love). The variety of rap stars who make cameos -- Common, Mos Def, Kweli, and Buckshot -- makes for a disjointed and uneven listen, and suggests some rappers were involved with the project because of name recognition. In "The Sun God," for example, Common is introduced even before the beats come in, and Kweli can't stop talking about Reflection Eternal in "Get Back -- Part 2." The best collaborations here are the ones that feel natural, even if the themes are played out. Slum Village gets goofy on the one-night-stand anthem "L.T.A.H.," Cincinnati singer Jonell adds soulful flavor to the ballad "Round and Round," and even the cheesy R&B track "All I Need Is You" works, because it's not all about posturing and name-dropping. There's nothing wrong with the beats here -- Hi-Tek pairs elegant string arrangements with thumping bass riffs, and the results are consistently engaging -- even on the mid-album instrumental "Tony Guitar Watson" and the intro "Scratch Rappin'." In fact, the quality of the music, apart from the lyrics, is good enough to make you hope Rawkus releases an instrumental version of this album.