Everything about this album primed me dislike Ill-iteracy. Firstly I received beats to review – not completed songs, just beats. The kind that every witless T-om, D.I.C. and Dr. Haz buys off the internet so they can delude themselves that their homophobic and misogynistic babble is battle rap. Slow speed, saw-tooth synth, shuffle drums and sampled soul; it’s all the same everywhere you go. The beats on their own are overwhelmingly uninspiring, but with the right rapping and production could be well utilised.
Secondly, the name Ill-iteracy... Say it over and over, roll it around your tongue. Ill iteracy. Ill iteracy. It’s clearly supposed to be a play on the words ‘illiteracy’, and ‘ill’ meaning good. But the way its put together is so clumsy. ‘Iteracy’ is not a word. How can iteracy be ill? If I was in the crew, I would pipe up a suggestion: “Excuse me lads, how about we call ourselves Ill Literacy. At least that means something. Ill-iteracy just looks like one of those meaningless misspellings so often degrading the credibility of hip hop with tragic attempts to look street.”
I can’t review beats, I thought, which eventually led me to Ill-it.com. An ugly badly designed website with too much nonsense and no useful stuff (like a biography or an about us page). But don’t think I’m full of negativity and immediately hostile to anything new. The thoughts in the Weigh With Words blog speak of a possible better world. A world different to our own in which sadly “the commonly portrayal [of street cred] includes obscenity instead of class, violence in response to disrespect, and self above all else.” These are the things that drag down hip hop, and to see this explicitly stated by Ill-iteracy is as good a sign as I could hope to see.
Elsewhere on Ill-it.com were the magic words ‘Click here to download’. And here the review can begin. Their album The Ensembly Line is available in its entirety, free from advertising, as a .rar download. Don’t let negative value attribution bias you; in this case free certainly does not mean worthless.
The opener, Intro-spective, is glorious. A hi-hat roll and a reverse reverb crash eases us into a perfectly simple drum line, soaring guitar sample, and the slightest of ‘yeah yeah yeah’ vocal scratches; not too showy, just perfectly executed. “It’s everything you thought it would be.” Fortunately it’s nothing like I thought it would be, given my low preconceptions. The carefully considered lyrics are skilfully expressed, with beautiful sentiment occasionally stepping forward:
“Before you point a finger at the judge, closely examine the person in the mirror with the straw in their nose. Dirty little secrets; embarrassed once y’all are exposed.”
An oft heard criticism of hip hop is its inability to express non-physical emotions of joy, love and spirituality. Intro-spective takes its place alongside Kanye West’s Never Let Me Down and Ice Cube’s It Was a Good Day to join the mounting evidence against this criticism. They are soulful, in a spiritual, life-affirming, gospel music sort of way. Hints of devotion and religious allusions create a rising beauty. The spiritual awakening some people experience is the same chemical and emotional experience as falling in love, and for me this song brings this together almost as much as the music of Sam Cooke. The sacred and the profane go together so well:
“How ironic and epiphinal: step into the church, sinning and unforgivable. Physically blessed earth angel in a tight dress alters my focus; that easy to digress, yes even with the best intentions, hell seems less in the distance”
“Even though I don’t rock the rosary, closer to god is where I’m supposed to be. Many steps remain but with each one I take a little strength is gained, so I dig a little deeper, work a little harder, understand a little bit more about my partner. Finding motivation, time and dedication, things that’ll better me during the separation. Working on my music, skipping all the parties, choosing who I hang around, no Kens or Barbies.”
Unfortunately the rest of the album is less noteworthy than the opener. It drives along nicely; some tracks pretty good (Is That What’s RiLL?, Money) some tracks are pretty bad (Shawdy Wassyname, You Can’t See Me), but it’s all fair to middling. I will give the album repeat listens, as I sense it is a grower, and with 21 tracks there is a lot to take in.
Ill-iteracy defiantly take their inspiration from the best hip hop has to offer (Kanye, Jay-Z, Common, De La Soul, etc), but have a long way to go before they reach their levels. Lyrically they are already there. It is the quality of the music that holds them back. Step away from the tuneless-chorus for tuneless-choruses sake, auto-tune for auto-tunes sake model of making hip hop, and find your own sound. This album shows signs of a burgeoning maturity, and I can’t wait to hear what comes next. There is so much worthless rubbish flying the banner for hip hop and in a just world Ill-iteracy would be making money, and N-Dubz would be desperately giving away music on their website.