Iswhat?!

The Life We Chose

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    8
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Although Iswhat?! are technically a hip-hop group, their style, and really, their overall vibe and appeal are much more closely rooted to the bop and free jazz tradition than they are to the South Bronx. "A Mingus-type tune for Jurassic Monk blues," MC, producer, and beatboxer Napoleon rhymes in "Profiles" over a line from Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and featuring drums from Hamid Drake. Napoleon uses his words as much for their rhythmic qualities as he does for their meaning, employing a slam poetry-esque technique in telling stories and criticizing the government. There is somewhat of a political agenda on The Life We Chose, but it's more social consciousness than conspiracy theory. This of course means that Iswhat?! run the risk of becoming overly theatrical, but Napoleon's rhymes are intelligent and provocative enough, rarely blaming individuals (an exception being George Bush in "Ill Biz") but focusing instead on situations, to prevent that from happening. So while the two minutes of a wailing mother over her murdered son on "Circus" may be rather dramatic, it's hard to argue that it's not also powerful and affecting. Where Iswhat?! really stand out, however, is in their music. Most of the songs use Jac Walker's sax (generally tenor), a bass, and some kind of beat, be it live, electronic, or beatboxed by Napoleon, a skill he shows off especially well on the two fantastic live cuts, "Kashmir" and "Pilgrimage," the latter of which is, along with "Mooch," solely instrumental. "Casket" is swinging and organic, and yet smoothly blends in synthesized elements thanks to Ming + FS' production, creating something spontaneous but polished at the same time. The only spot on which they falter is in the techno-influenced "Front," which, while not bad per se, contrasts dissonantly with the rest of the songs on the album, because what really separates Iswhat?! at their best from other hip-hop groups is their dedication to jazz -- the horn solos, the loping bass -- and their energy and professionalism. When these are all allowed to really come through, Iswhat?! are as exciting and innovative as anything else out there.

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