There’s gotta be something in the water in Detroit. For decades, the city’s been hit with staggering unemployment numbers and an economy that’s only shrinking further while a large swath of the population has already dipped below the official poverty line for generations. There are more cities going through rough times, seeing their primary industry dissipate like Detroit did with the car industry, but few seem to persevere like they do. Detroit has suffered through misery, but it also has one of the most fascinating, lively and uncompromising hip-hop scenes in the entire world. With Dice Game, Guilty Simpson and beatsmith Apollo Brown try to add another notch to Detroit’s rich history.
Detroit had a crucial role in the birth of soul, rock and house music and the “Motor City” has often had a distinct sound and style, wholly their own. So it’s not just braggadocio when when Guilty utilizes his deep voice, drenched with authority, to spit “Detroit, the city’s got a wild rep / That explains why over seven hundred ‘thou left / But the industry tends to follow the trends / The same motherfuckers from the Mile set / Yes.” in the album’s opening track ‘Reputation’. History backs those words up fully. The title of the track is self-explanatory as well with a reputation like the denizens of the ‘D’ have. They have a musical legacy to be proud of, but for many, “reputation” is all they have, often with dire consequences. “Cold winters, hot summers / Murders in high numbers” as Guilty says in the same track, simply but effectively summarizing the harsh life in his hometown.
Come to think of it, “simple but effective” is a description broadly applicable to Guilty Simpson’s rhyming in general, in the most positive sense of the term. Don’t expect verbal acrobatics involving alliteration, internal rhymes or dazzling switches of tempo. Both his lyrics and his vocal delivery of them are as straight-forward as a punch to the gut, something that perfectly fits with his heavy, bluesy voice and deliberate flow. Uttering a threat is something you can easily leave to him, as well as lamenting the harsh sides of life. That being said, the lyrics do seem to come from a more personal place this time around than was the case with his earlier projects. Debut album Ode To The Ghetto mostly stuck to fairly generic stories from the hood while his contributions to Random Axe mainly consisted of boasts and threats. That makes a track like ‘Changes,’ which describes the thoughts going around the heads of a homeless coke-addicted man and an alcoholic woman, a welcome and diversifying addtion to his discography, clearly proving his growth as a songwriter.
The clearly enunciated and no-strings-attached flow of Guilty Simpson does run the risk of being unable to carry an entire album on his own. It’s perfectly able in this case though, and this is due to Apollo Brown as well. His soulful productions do a lot to bring interesting mood and atmosphere to the tracks. He’s a producer that ostensibly takes a traditional approach, not just because of his use of samples but the choice of source material for those samples as well. The first two tracks employ samples that should be familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in rap, since they’re same exact samples as those in Jay-Z’s ‘Where I’m From’ and Wu-Tang’s ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ Not exactly obscure songs, but even though Apollo Brown has a good shot at scoring with nostalgic fans it doesn’t mean he stays stuck in a bygone age, content with cutting a recognizable loop and calling it a day. With a nose for interesting sounds, vocal snippets and bits of instrumentation, he manages to give his beats enough texture to make them successfully stand on their own two legs.
Appollo Brown and Guilty Simpson throw together a great score in their Dice Game. Raw and honest, artisan beats and dope raps. It may not sound all that surprising, like the rap equivalent of a plate of meat and potatoes, but the days are getting longer and temperatures lower. We can all use a hearty, home-cooked meal from Detroit.