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Masterminds - Stone Soup
(Third Earth Music)

When last we met our intrepid heroes (The Masterminds, stay with me) they had released an impressive album, Underground Railroad to much critical praise. It had everything that folks come to indie hip-hop for, that spirit of fun and adventure that has been sorely missing in most forms of popular music these days. Underground Railroad was that most enviable of first dates: a real looker, but with brains and has something to say. It's safe to say that Masterminds brought a good deal of new converts into their stable with that effort; which is both admirable and fortunate, since this form of hip-hop is very "first impression". The underground by definition alone is almost completely fan-driven, so it's not as if they'll be hiring Madison Avenue ad-execs to come full out for a future release.

Underground Railroad had the lyrics, had the beats, had the cohesion to form a plausible foundation. They could easily ride out the formula at work on that album for some time to come and they'd get neither found out or get more than a slap on the wrist. Perhaps one person saying "this sounds exactly like they first album." This has become a small, unspoken problem with the underground hip-hopper as of late: for every groundbreaking "Cold Vein" there are several other middling efforts in store; even considering the subversive nature of the music. Maybe I should stop looking a gift horse in the damn mouth, one might also say. True, I would take a million good albums that share a bit too much of a similarity with their forefathers than one friggin' Limp Bizkit release. So, I suppose that accepting something a bit more than a sophomore slump is the price I'll have to pay for avoiding the novelty-act syndrome.

Or, I have another idea. What if more groups could follow the example of Masterminds and completely blow everything away with their subsequent releases? Let it be known that Underground Railroad was a very good album, but Stone Soup is a motherfucker. If Underground Railroad was a great first date, Stone Soup would have to raise questions of love at first sight. Yes, it's that complete an album and could find itself on some Top 10 lists by the end of the year.

The Masterminds proved an understanding of "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down" on their first album. Their songs were filled with messages of enlightenment, but their beats were infectious and provoked many head-bobs. They saw no reason to mire in heavy statements or to make their music "accessible". It was both. But now with Stone Soup, things have gone from better to best. The Masterminds have done more than just make another good album; they've found their own distinct sound. That such a feat was achieved by the second album has to be a testament to the work that obviously went into crafting it.

The backing beats on this one seem to encompass the psychedelic production work of label Def Jux, namely El-P, with a nod to the old school mixing of Eric B. and Boogie Down Productions. If you can imagine that then you may have an understanding of what's at work on this one. Spacy, deep, and eclectic music that defines the mood of each song quite well. "Stone Planet" will bring about visions of the Rock Steady Crew ripping it up on some street corner in NYC circa early 80's, while "Good Morning Night" just hovers with a very dreamy soundscape.
Lyrically, The Masterminds are quite grounded throughout. The emceeing is forceful and skilled; there's never a song where they decide to take it easy and let the music speak for them. The delivery is a bit more traditional than some of their contemporaries, and it definitely suits them. It's either a great contrast or it fits in perfectly. The subject matter is a bit more serious this time around with songs that range from saving hip-hop from itself to the warrior's spirit that grew in an ancestor after seeing his mother kill herself rather than be enslaved.
Damn. If an album can pull subject matter like this off without being overly weighted or self-righteous, then it must be something special. Stone Soup is.


--Maurice Downes

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