Rap industry veteran Joell Ortiz sounds more focused than he's ever been on Mona Lisa, his full-length collaboration with Detroit beatsmith Apollo Brown. The album's title makes clear his ambitions to create a lasting work of art, and the album's production and direction aim for timelessness rather than trendiness. Brown's beats are laced with vinyl crackle, and they encompass choppy, heart-tugging strings, Portishead-like noir, and heavy, hard-edged boom-bap. Ortiz's lyrics similarly represent numerous facets of his personality. The slightly melancholy "Reflection" is an honest expression of Ortiz's desire to create, even as he comes to terms with the likelihood that his commercial success will probably never match his level of talent. His superb storytelling skills are in full display on cuts like the harrowing "That Place," wherein he discusses his hatred for having to spend time in hospitals, either to visit friends injured due to gunplay or to witness the birth of an unplanned baby. On "Decisions," he comprehensively considers a life of crime versus a rap career over a sorrowful cello sample and a booming beat. "Timberlan'd Up" (with Ortiz's former Slaughterhouse bandmate Royce da 5'9") has a gut-punching beat to match its sharp, cutting rhymes, and "Cocaine Fingertips" is more over the top in its offensiveness, yet it's clear that it's not meant to be taken so seriously. The concluding title track is, however; Ortiz passionately details his creative process, and his yearning for perfection. Immaculately crafted yet seemingly effortless, Mona Lisa is among both artists' best work.
AllMusic Review by Paul Simpson