About a year ago I only associated "the backwoods" with some vague notion of a deep Southern rural setting. Then I heard the song You Gonna Luv Me, and the subsequent remix with Nas and Slim Thug, and now I can further associate "the backwoods" with Da BackWudz, a group whose name is seemingly inspired by a deep Southern rural setting. Aside from featuring Nas in the rare position of sounding comfortable in a quicker double time flow, because of the beat's interesting marriage of Kanye West and crunk, You Gonna Luv Me piqued my interest in the Decatur, Georgia duo. Well, like I said, about a year went by, and while doing casual message board browsing last week, I came upon a leak to Da BackWudz debut, Wood Work, which happens to come out today. Surprised that this album was not already in stores and shipping gold, nevertheless, I decided to check it out myself.
Read any of Da BackWudz' press and you'll be hit with this idea that their musical influences span genres. According to an MTV write-up, Wood Work is a "a down-home compilation of classic crunk, throwback funk and juke-joint soul . . . allowing them the ability to encompass all sounds and vibes without getting stuck in a one-dimensional groove." On one hand, this could make for a diverse and continually exciting sound. On the other hand, what it ultimately means is that the album is sabotaged by having too much going on. Wood Work is not an album that lives and dies by its lyrics. Rappers Sho-Nuff and Big Marc, Sho-Nuff especially, I think, more than acquit themselves, with only occasional lapses into the contrived. However, it's in the production side of things that the debut meets its death sentence.
If I had to generalize the Southern rap aesthetic in a single word, "soulful" would jump out admittedly. Listening to Devin the Dude, Goodie Mob, Outkast, Scarface, UGK, etc, lyrically and sonically these artists convey the energy and raw emotion which characterizes a lot of classic soul music. Instead of having any real soul though, Wood Work merely has busy soul samples. And as everything from Jennifer Holliday (You Gonna Luv Me) to Bob Marley (Making Money Count Hundreds), or even Willy Wonka (I Don't Like The Look Of It), is thrown on, these samples aren't filtered in any especially creative or meaningful way. They're simply piled up, drums on top of singing on top of synthesizers on top of sound effects on top of more singing on top of chants to the point where all these elements just topple over (Fantastic). To see this trouble, look no further than the revamped You Gonna Luv Me remix. The version on the downloaded release happens to be different than what I heard a year ago. While the 2005 effort was no simplistic creation, its sped-up sample was used with restraint, and its synth led industrial thump proved more than manageable. Now, in '06, the sample is used not only in the hook, but over the verses too, making itself quite distracting. The drums have been changed to have more going on but no more success. And when it comes time for Nas' verse, they isolate the percussion, in an awkward fashion, and add an annoying "hey hey hey" chant for extra measure. It must have been real crowded in Decatur that day. All of these fancy production ticks, tricks, and trinkets are indicative of a self-conscious style that waves its hands wildly instead of just keeping a solid beat.
However, it's not all bad. When the production is more focused and Sho-Nuff and Big Marc are allowed to lead the way, Wood Work gets its formula right. For instance, the intro, Welcome 2 Da Backwudz, starts with thick old school horns and handclaps, an instant adrenaline shot, which the MCs ride with ease. There's also some scratching and a background melody. But even if a lot still is going on, it's organized: "church music and oldies and R&B consoled me, but nothing sounded better than what the Hip-Hop told me." Later comes Feelin' Lonely, the group's high point. With guitar, keys, more natural sounding drums, and singing that's covered in this interesting studio murkiness, but still is able to move, the album finally finds its soul. Appropriately enough, the rappers share a trio of heartfelt stories over the song's mellowed-out vibes. While the first verse deals in the Brenda / Tisha genre, it's the second story that introduces the most creative and even daring episode. The tale of a gay football jock may, at first, seem like a mundane after-school special, but the sincerity with which this story is presented, and the subtle irony that its conclusion taps into, make Feelin' Lonely stand out. In this one song, with the production tempered, the lyrics made primary, and the rhymes and stories allowed to shine, Da BackWudz finds its sound, if a bit a late.
Lame nigga, I flame niggasDa BackWudz f/ Slim Thug, Nas: You Gonna Luv Me (2005 remix)
Whoever came withcha
I got retire-out-the-game figures
BONUS: Da BackWudz: Feelin' Lonely
BONUS: Da BackWudz: Welcome 2 Da Backwudz