Is the cup half-full or half-empty? That's a necessary cliché when you consider the plight/blessing of the Arsonists. Once a group containing the talents of myriad emcees, they were whittled down to a more tidy, and probably more manageable five for their first major release: "As the World Burns." They've now had more time to hone their skills, smooth out the rough edges, find their voice, and grow closer as a collective… but yet they sport even fewer emcees (three, to be exact) on their latest Matador release: "Date of Birth." As you lose members you may tighten the ship, but do you lose the heart? Could you imagine Jurassic 5 without its… um… six members?

Remaining emcees Jise, Swel 79, and producer/MC Q-Unique make a convincing argument for the Arsonists' turbulent history. The result of constant band upheaval appears to be a group that is in harmony with each other's ideas. No track on this album sounds out of place or forced, and when they venture into darker material (like "His Hate, Her Love") it doesn't feel obligatory, like an album of "Fuck the Bitch, Get the Cash" songs with that one "Love My Mama" track. No shows of false emotion on this one, which is admirable.

The Arsonists all have a similar, wordy flow that shows a lot of technique, but not a terrible amount of contrast. This could be seen as artistic agreement, but could also be construed as a slight hindrance since groups like Wu-Tang are known to thrive on contrasting styles.

As a whole, the album bobs from tracks that are merely good, but forgettable, to real gems without any discernable pattern. However, when they're on, they're on. It's safe to say that "Millionaire", the final track on the album is easily one of the best hip-hop tracks of the year, skit and all. It parodies what you think it parodies, and is reminiscent of more clever times in hip-hop. Another winner, "Language Arts" is a blistering ode to the tried and true "emceeing as martial art" aesthetic. Praise be to Q-Unique for keeping the production tight and interesting, if at times a little too constant.

"Date of Birth" is a solid release, hands down. The Brooklyn-based group has kept it together nicely, and isn't at all the worse for wear despite the smaller numbers.

-- Maurice Downes

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