Matson on Music
Review: Blue Scholars "OOF!" EP
Posted by Andrew Matson
Local hiphop duo Blue Scholars is back with 12 tracks on an EP called "OOF!"
It's a varied affair that may or may not sound like "hiphop" to the average listener. There's cutesy reggae ("Cruz"), aerobics-paced synth-pop ("New People"), and one minimalist experiment with tribal drums. No offense to the rhymes—which swing more than on previous Scholars releases—but "OOF!" is all about the beats. Six of the tracks are instrumental versions of the other six.
Geologic (words) and Sabzi (sounds) are known for pretty songs with positive social messages, but this time deliver both with a twist: The lyrics are about Hawaii—where Geo used to live and the Scholars recently vacationed—and the backdrops are all over the place.
Physical copies of "OOF!" are available for purchase at Caffe Vita locations around Seattle, and also at Blue Scholars' "OOF!" EP release party at 10 p.m. Tuesday at 'Ohana Restaurant & Sushi Bar in Belltown, 2207 First Ave., Seattle; $5 (206-956-9329). Coffee, sushi, and hiphop: What's weird about that?
Below is my completely subjective analysis, track by track, and a widget Scholars manager David Meinert put in my inbox that lets you hear the songs.
Hands down the best song on "OOF!" One of the best Seattle rap songs this year, and it's been a great year, quality-wise.
The beat starts sparse, with dry-sounding drums—rumored to have been sampled from taiko recordings—and plenty of negative space. Sabzi uses silence to great effect, letting each clip and clop fall in a vacuum. It's a severe beginning.
A feeling of calm purpose sets in with Geo's warning shot: "Those who front but don't really want trouble/ Step to the side like an S1W." Probably the coldest bar of his whole career.
When I interviewed Sabzi, he said Geo rapped the verse to a click track—a metronome—and the beat was created later. You can kind of tell. Geo's sounded stilted before, but this verse—a characteristic string of rhymes about social activism in the Northwest and beyond—is delivered like an event, with interior rhymes and little cadence swoops emphasized every few seconds. In short: entertaining.
The drums never pick up speed or get busy, which is a welcome, confident move. They just stay weirdly unfinished-sounding. The listener has to come to the beat, not the other way around.
A low synth lurks throughout the song, playing rhythmic counterpoint, and then blossoms into a full-on, o-face solo in the fourth quarter. It's like a black & white song exploding into color. But it doesn't explode; the synthesizer slithers into sudden prominence. Sabzi's style is too smooth for explosions.
Sabzi's beat is a capable impersonation of the Neptunes' style, with rhythmic organ stabs, tuned tom drums, and jingle bells working together for a seriously 3-D effect. Special touches make the track pop: isolated chime up here, echoing timpani down there. A thick, sustained "hummmmmmmm" occasionally surrounds on all sides, supplied by a chorus of disembodied voices. Sabzi's bells and whistles are pretty cool, as far as bells and whistles go.
Geo's rapping is excellent, and all about Hawaii. He starts with a story about moving to the Northwest from Hawaii and promptly getting made fun of for his accent. Then he goes back to Hawaii after many years because he misses the feel of sand on his feet. Once there, he raps hotter "a haole burning on the beach," and notes a few depressing facts: the houses he used to know have been razed, and there's "an ice epidemic so large, it might put global warming on pause." "Ice" is meth, and if you didn't know, Geo's apparently anti-that. He's pro-weed, though: "This ain't rock Barack walked and breathed, it be the smoke signals from the wowie trees."
After two tracks, we're wondering, "Who is this new group, and what happened to Blue Scholars?" No matter. Whoever these new guys are, they're good.
Another Sabzi winner: Great ascending, subtly unpredictable bass line; wet snares; twinkly guitar line; real-sounding hi-hat tick-tick-ticking.
One minute in, Geo's rapping funny about all the things he used to do—example: "Used to make friends with squares if their sister was hot."
Then a deep, semi-sinister synth hits, a fast clap introduces itself, and just like that, the beat switches to a house music rhythm.
The previous elements remain, but the tempo and mood of the song has gone from "chill" to "driving," and Geo's turned from rapping about funny stuff he used to do to paranoid rantings about being "outnumbered by the dude-bros" weirdly admitting "never had a dope flow, still don't."
The track keeps the listener involved from beginning to end.
Immediate impression: this could soundtrack a Coca-Cola commercial during the Olympics.
Cheeseball synth-vocals bleat a hand-holding melody. It's relentlessly positive-sounding. Sometimes Sabzi's taste for tunefulness comes off saccharine to me, and this is one of those times. It's the chords from "Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman.
The song starts over an uptempo workout, a beat to dance to like Carlton from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Then, thankfully, the opening rah-rah subsides, synths are dampened, relegated to background watercolors, and a clickety-clackety beat forms. Geo starts rapping, and, beneath his verse, the track is toned-down. It's good.
But what is Geo rapping about? I'm sorry, "poems in my scrotum"?
The chorus is cool. Geo is singing with a woman, or a woman-sounding voice. Maybe it's Sabzi or Geo himself singing in a falsetto. Actually, I'd put money on that. But it's a good chorus. "Watch, 'cause here we come/ New people."
More of Sabzi doing his sweet-sounding melody thing. Soft synths make simple, pleasant lines while Geo raps for the ladies. He just wants to say hello. Any harm in that?
Nice, satisfying snap on the beat. The drums, like the ones on "Bananas," sound taiko-ish. Love the sound. The more I listen to this song, the more the drums stand out.
Cloying as it is, it's easy to get into "Hello" if you're in the mood for some nice-guy sex-hop. Sounds fresh. Like, exfoliated.
How about this line from Geo:
"I don't f__k with Patron, that s__t is expensive/ Bottom shelf Cuervo, they can't tell the difference."
Ah, the "Jawaiian" song.
Don't know where to start with this one. At first, I thought it was reggae for children. Then I talked to Sabzi and he spoke about the Jamaican-Hawaiian bridge, that it's resulted in this style of music that's intentionally cute-sounding, that it's its own genre and sometimes doesn't sound right out of context.
I don't think I should comment on it until I'm on a beach.
I like the chorus. Geo's "cruising with my cruising with my cruising with my crew" line reminds me of a whole host of "just kickin' it with the homies" rap songs.
These are all instrumentals of the previous songs. It's especially nice to have them for the first three, which are minor masterworks by Sabzi. I like how Geo sounds on their other versions, but can tell I'll be getting much more replay value from the instros.
Image from the Scholars' blog
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