The hip-hop community has been anticipating the coming of Slum Village's commercial debut with the same fervor Christians await the availability of a newly discovered gospel. And like the arrival of a sacred text, there were countless unauthorized versions and unlabeled bootlegs floating among believers for months before its official release. Fantastic, Vol. 2 was lost in the shuffle when A&M, the label Slum Village was signed to at the time, was swallowed in the Polygram-Universal merger, but the tapes have existed in some form or another for more than three years. Producer Jay Dee's legendary work on De La Soul's Stakes Is High, the last two A Tribe Called Quest albums and a smattering of hot singles prompted an international white-label ring that threatened to steal the legal release's thunder. The Detroit trio took the tried-and-true hip-hop escape route -- jumping major-label ship for indie sanctuary -- and changed the track listing in hopes of one-upping bootleggers.
Everybody from chart-topping rap stars to the kid digging through the used crates at the local vinyl shop knows that Slum Village is going to single-handedly save rap music. On the first listen, though, it might be hard to pick out what all the fuss is about. To begin with, Jay Dee's beats don't sound extraordinarily ahead of their time. That's because his production style has been subtly influencing better-recognized producers for years. Second, none of the tracks jumps out as a hum-along anthem. That's because there isn't a single gimmick on the entire record -- no air-puffed choruses or recognizable riffs sampled from pop tunes. Third, none of Slum Village's MCs -- or guests like Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Kurupt, or Pete Rock, for that matter -- seems to be ripping through the instrumentals, standing out from the tracks as their raison d'être. That's because each beat is hand-woven into the lyrical texture of the featured vocalist (and vice versa), making for uncommonly solid cuts unlikely to evaporate into history as yesterday's hits.
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Like all great albums, the real depth of Fantastic, Vol. 2 is revealed after about the fifth play through. The studio nuances and cleverly conceived rhyme routines only then start bubbling to the top. Most impressive, songs like "Fall in Love," "Players," and "Raise It Up" render the commercial accessibility-vs.-authenticity debate moot. For once, some very real hip-hop threatens to move some very real units. Watch out, George Jefferson -- Slum Village has its sights on that deluxe apartment in the sky.