There is an argument to be made that the independent hip-hop surge of the late 90s has had a lasting effect on the pop culture landscape. True, the changes were largely tectonic, more or less unseen shifts below the surface of popular sensibilities. But the results, for better and sometimes worse, are far reaching: Common and Mos Def at the multiplex, Will.I.Am in the studio with MJ and a public primed for the impact of Kanye West’s debut album.
Again, the foot soldiers from this influential era have been forgotten in many circles but there is no doubt that many of those artists are still here and still very much out to make noise. Scifentology II, the new album from Queens-bred MC Yak Ballz is proof that dynamic, thoughtful, creative hip-hop is hardly a thing of the past.
On one hand, Yak’s flow and rhyme style are what one might expect from an MC who grew up on a diet of graf, Organized Konfusion and live Company Flow. Album opener “Blind Faith” finds him spitting lines like “Prey on blood / steering remote control sharks.” Nevertheless, Yak Ballz makes these dark abstractions come off naturally — after all, he came up putting out 12” singles on Def Jux and freestyling for Bobbito Garcia on WKCR’s legendary “CM Famalam Show.”
But the album’s real achievement is its successful fusion of this standard battery of left-field rhymes with rock-informed production. While it occasionally sends the sound careening too close to a Linkin Park aesthetic (“A Billion Ways”), this tricky formula yields positive results on the dramatic “Out of Range” and the swirling psych-ish “War in My Head”. And despite all the dark forces at work, the album’s tracks usually provide a nice head nod — it’s funky, as opposed to sludgy and scary.
Keeping things interesting, simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls inherent in merging rock with rhyme, staying accessible — it’s a dicey fence-walk that Yak Ballz pulls off with Scifentology II. Here’s to continued influence.