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The IV Edition
Label: Syntax Records
Length:17 Tracks / 58:02
"It's been a long road, driven by purpose / and I know, I know, I know that it's worth it." (from "Calculated Risk")
I was first introduced to Brian Winchester a.k.a. "Braille" back in the hallowed days of the late nineties and early 2000's - the days of the original mp3.com, 56k modems, and a noticeable explosion in quality positive, underground, Christian hip-hop. Many names that are now revered were first heard during that time, names like Mars Ill, Deepspace5, Tunnel Rats, and Grits. For me personally, I've always numbered Braille amidst those top-notch groups and artists.
It's been a long time since then, and a lot has changed - not only in hip-hop, but in the music industry as a whole. However, even as the industry and the art forms involved in bringing music to the masses have changed and evolved, some things have remained constant. Braille is an example of this constancy and stability. The IV Edition, released in April on Syntax Records, is Braille's 4th solo record. His past records, 1999's Lifefirst: Half the Battle, 2004's Shades of Gray, and 2006's Box of Rhymes, are all textbook examples of positive hip-hop done right. Even better, sitting and listening through them from beginning (Lifefirst) to end (The IV) reveals what is perhaps the most secure and constant element of Braille's work: Progress. Braille is dedicated to improving not only in his life, but in every facet of his music.
Practically, this manifests itself in many ways on The IV Edition; which in its name refers to four related ideas. First, the idea of an IV that distributes "musical medicine for social illnesses directly into the veins of society". Second, the idea of "International Vision" - improving our global awareness and activity. Third, the idea of an "International Version" (referencing the international audience as well as the international crew involved in producing the record). Fourth, the number four (this is, after all, Braille's fourth record). With IV, More than on any other outing (including his group work with Return to Sender, Acts29, and Lightheaded), Braille demonstrates an unapologetic commitment to pushing himself lyrically, stylistically, and even in terms of the kind of production he acquired for this record.
Let's start with the music: Every beat on the record comes from a different producer, including such notables as Ohmega Watts, Marco Polo, DJ Spinna, and Kno. I'm always wary of records that have a multitude of producers (much less a record where every track has a different one), and for good cause: they tend to suffer incredibly from a lack of continuity of sound. There are times when The IV Edition falls prey to this, but for the most part it holds its own... in part I suspect due to the pedigree of the producers. Generally, the sound of the record is rather large: street beats, plenty of turntablism, tastefully implemented cuts that add to tracks rather than detracting, gobs of deep bass, etc. Overall, the sound is punctuated and diverse without being overbearing, and ultimately quite accessible. Musically, this is the hip-hop you throw on to chill to, to rock to, and maybe even to dance to just a little bit. Even better, this is the hip-hop you don't mind sharing with your fam because it's clean without being childish, fun without being absurd or unimportant, and most importantly challenging.
"'Lyricism don't sell no more', that's what they say, but I just ignore it: I won't forfeit..." (from "The IV")
The challenge is in the lyrics. Braille has always been a talented lyricist, and has certainly taken things to another level with this disc - but, in being consistent with himself and his progression, Braille brings the same approach to textual content he always has. For those unfamiliar with Braille, that approach is to weave truth and insight and thoughts throughout what can only be described as the story of his life. Braille's lyrics don't read like a story though, it's more that his way of presenting is very relatable and down to earth. Braille is a normal guy with a marriage, children, problems, failures, victories, and all the rest of it that we all live on the daily. This is a major feature of his writing - normal stuff, and it's in this normal stuff and through it that he relays his observations from living, and the lessons he's learned and wants to share. As a result, although he's certainly underground, his lyrics aren't overwhelmingly cerebral (you won't have to bust out the dictionary or wikipedia to figure out what he's talking about), but neither are they the banal testosterone frenzy we'd find on your typical radio rap single. For those who prefer tongue-twisting mind-bending wordplay in their hip-hop (and I'm admittedly in this camp most of the time), this isn't really what you'll find on The IV Edition, but that's not to say that Braille is anything less than challenging. Part of what makes his lyrics connect and knock you over sometimes is precisely that they are so immediately relatable. This has always been a strength for Braille, and on this record it really shines. Particularly, it shines on The IV Edition because Braille has been through a lot lately, as since Box of Rhymes he's both experienced the joy of becoming and being a father and the pain and struggle of losing one (Braille's father died while the album was being recorded).
There's a handful guest rappers on the record, many of whom have shared time with Braille on previous releases. Namely, you'll find folks like Manchild from Mars Ill, Speech, Mr J from The Procussions, Poems from LA Symphony, DJ Bombay, Theory Hazit, DJ Idull, and a couple appearances by Rob Swift. All of the guests hold their own, and for the most part they fit really well into the tapestry of the disc and the overall direction of each song.
Overall, this is a great album that showcases the progress Braille has continued to make throughout his career. The myriad of producers fork over a heaping helping of great beats, the guest rappers come with a lot of heat, and most of all, Braille shares himself with us once again... and once again, it's a blessing.
Scoring a record like The IV Edition is difficult. It's certainly not perfect - the plethora of producers do hand us a couple of dud beats, some of the hooks are kind of annoying (I'm thinking primarily of "Main Squeeze", but that may just be because I was really never into James Brown!), and of course, there's plenty of room here for improvement. However, Braille's made my job easy because in the closing moments of the record he says the following:
"And to all the critics: You don't gotta give this a perfect score. On a scale of 1 to 5, maybe call it a four. You know, 'cuz it's IV. I mean it'd be appropriate, it's kinda like you'd be giving in to the wordplay, plus it gives me room to keep growin'. If you think it's lower, I mean... that's on you. I ain't gonna argue. Everybody's got their own opinion." (from "ADDvice")
...I'm inclined to give in to the wordplay.
IV out of V.
Standout Tracks: Calculated Risk, The IV, Counter Attack, Mental Guards (Snitch Blade), Get It Right.
Jerry Bolton (email@example.com / bloodletting.blogspot.com)