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Artist: Masterminds
Album: Underground Railroad
Label: Ground Control Records

It's a question of brains and beauty when you get down to it. Even a question of fun. When it comes to hip-hop, it seems like you just can't be all things to all people. If you're a "conscious" emcee, then the club-goers are quick to shoot you down as ruining their good time with your constant harping. If you're "flashy", then you're accused of not having a real thought going on in your pretty little head, and the underground contingent just aren't with you. The battle lines are pretty clearly drawn, and to be an independent emcee is one immediate strike against you in the battle to get people's heads nodding.

Enter Masterminds. The three New York emcees (Oracle, Kimani, and Epod) that make up this collective are in total lyrical control. Their lines are well-delivered and clever, and they show loads of technique without resorting to silly boasts. Moreover, the general theme of the album isn't overly morose, which is a problem that some hip-hop artists have when they try to venture into conscious territory. The "Masterminds" are mostly concerned with getting on the mic with their rhyme delivery, and if you happen to learn something… just as well. The guest lyricists don't make themselves a nuisance either, which is absolute gold for someone who listens to hip-hop with any frequency. They're there to add a little something, not to grandstand… Except for the track "Seven" which features, of course, seven rhymers. Everyone's there to grandstand and it's great (El-P's appearance will make Company Flow fans weepy about their recent break up).

The beats on this album are truly something special. Listening to "The Underground Railroad" is listening to some true DJ cutting and scratching, and it works well with the lines being laid down. There are tracks that'll get your ass out of your seat, and tracks that'll just have you calming down and appreciating the music. Quite a huge deal for such a low-key release, but it never comes off as some under-budget underground effort.

"The Underground Railroad" succeeds as an album that is thoughtful and exciting at the same time. As a whole, it seems to gain confidence as the tracks get more and more powerful towards the end. The real chances are taken with songs like "2025" and the ultra-serious "Day One", a warning about the dangers of lingering racism.
A solid hip-hop release for all the right reasons, you could do a lot worse than to take a chance on "Masterminds" and "The Underground Railroad". Further proof that hip-hop intelligence can be fun.

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