In hip-hop there are two kinds of movers: the young upstarts who explode onto the scene with a jaw-dropping release, stealing the spotlight and changing the game forever. Then there are the slow-burners, workmen-and-women who quietly labor away, honing their craft and being fixtures of the scene from year to year to year. These are the guys and girls who are in it for the long haul, the ones who are still putting out quality work long after the upstarts have fizzled out.
Champaign-Urbana hip-hop act Curb Service is firmly in the second group. Curb Service is one of the incarnations of DJ Larry E. Gates II, who has also put out music under the names DJ Legtwo, The Jezbelly, and as part of the now-defunct band Lorenzo Goetz. Listen to these acts, all with different flavors, and you'll come away with the impression that Gates is a practitioner of the groove. Curb Service's new release Romeo Jive upholds that impression in spades.
Curb Service's heroes (which frequently name checks on his excellent, educational blog) are acts like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and various soul/funk legends, and it shows on Romeo Jive. He specializes in mid-tempo, immaculately-sampled grooves underpinned with smart, lazily-delivered rhymes that are thought-provoking but still delivered with bravado.
Gates' last release as Curb Service was five years ago, when he put out some nice, frat-party-friendly tracks that didn't tax the listeners' brains too much. Here, five years later, he returns with a tighter sound and more introspective lyrics. His previous releases as Curb Service saw him mixing up his hip-hop/break beat tracks with full-rock-band-backed songs. There were some songs that were straight up indie rock. But on Romeo Jive, Curb Service fully embraces the hip-hop ethos. It's a confident, mature record, obviously from someone who puts a lot of thought into assembling sounds designed to move people.
As a producer/composer, Curb Service is tight, seamless. Romeo Jive's production values rival bigger, more established major-label acts, and he creates a catchy, intriguing space for his well-crafted rhymes. On Romeo Jive, Curb Service stays away from relying too much on samples and the studio as instruments, and instead creates a warm and organic sound built up from guitar, pianos, drums, and the occasional synth. When he does use samples on the record, he makes sure they blend together with his live-recorded music and always serve the larger piece.
Lyrically, Romeo Jive is intelligent and clever. Curb Service definitely has the flow that comes from being long immersed in the work of hip-hop's innovators. He's just as comfortable covering topics running the gamut from goofy forbidden love on "The Jitters" and "Romeo Jive" to moving, heartfelt advice from a father to his son on "Solemnly," all with the confidence of a veteran rapper.
Curb Service: "The Fix"
One of the album's stand-out tracks is the elder-statesman autobiography "The Fix," a spacious meditation on clawing his way up from the top that all hip-hop artists seem obligated to make at least one of. Curb Service pulls it off by being sparing in production and emotionally honest, with grizzled-wisdom tidbits like "And all I really knew was what not to be. / The rest was a guess you can put that all on me." Romeo Jive is full of moments like this, where Gate's rhymes pierce through the laid-back grooves and make your brain and heart take notice along with your bobbing head.
The strongest track on the record is "La Rosa Come Over," a pretty and soaring instrumental piece that isn't much more than a four-chord piano loop, some drums, and harmonic humming but manages in its simplicity to convey more yearning and wistfulness than many of Gates' cleverly-penned lyrics. Maybe it's the change-up from all the mid-tempo drawl that makes it so appealing.
Curb Service: "La Rosa Come Over"
Which is exactly where Romeo Jive's main weakness lies. When Curb Service subsumes his skills as a DJ to his skills as a songwriter, we lose something. Gates' other work as a DJ, producer, and remixer is chock full of bangers that would be right at home at any club. On this album, Curb Service opts for the same basic mid-tempo sample-instrumental-verse-chorus-verse format that, while good for kicking back with your favorite chill-out substance and contemplating middle-class problems, doesn't really propel you to the dance floor. Although no two tracks sound alike and the album never starts to sound redundant, it would be nice to have some tracks that make me want to dance.
Also, Gates' voice can be a doppelganger of Elliot Smith's, and there's a reason Smith wasn't a rapper. Smith's voice lent itself best to fragile, poignant songs of self-loathing, not laid-back raps full of braggadocio spouting middle-age wisdom. There was a point on the record where Gates' thin double-tracked vocals got a bit too saccharine and I started craving brawnier stuff.
Romeo Jive is a record you listen to on a lazy evening kicking your feet up on the porch with a six-pack of beer, watching the night go by, maybe talking some philosophy with your buds. Or riding around in your car late at night, wondering where the hell the last fifteen years of your life went and why they went by so fast. The record reminds you that while you have a lot of history behind you, you've still got a lot going for you right here, right now. A shot of adrenaline it's not, but maybe what we all need is to just chill out anyway.
Curb Service will perform tomorrow, Saturday, August 17th at Mike 'N Molly's with Thoughts Detecting Machines and Swords as a part of Romeo Jive's release party.