People Hear What They See
[Mello Music Group, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, September 30, 2012
Listen: “Another’s Grind (Featuring Tranquill)”
I’m of the mindset that all hip-hop is “conscious.” Even the worst (or best, depending on who you’re talking to) of the street lifestyle-glorifying, drug peddling, gun-toting rap that seems to have infiltrated the world of hip-hop in the past decade is “conscious.” It’s just conscious of a very insular world, and one that most of us don’t really dwell in or relate to. It’s just not the life of the typical hip-hop fan, but it is life, and it’s important to be conscious of it just like it’s important to understand the world in which one does dwell. Washington D.C.’s Oddisee lives in a world not quite so insular, however. His is a world the average hip-hop aficionado can feel, can touch, and can see every time they go out their front door. While not completely ignoring what’s going on in the streets around him, but giving us a perspective much like ours—of a somewhat removed pair of eyes—he delivers one of the most wholly “conscious” hip-hop records of the year in People Hear What They See.
Oddisee, born Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, has earned this somewhat unique perspective in today’s hip-hop from growing up in one of the surrounding suburbs of Washington D.C., giving him the somewhat removed vantage point of the rough areas of the country’s capital, but still close enough to the thick of things to allow him to eloquently describe that lifestyle and the ways to rise above it. As the son of an African American mother and Sudanese father, Oddisee was exposed to not only a wide variety of musical styles but also an array of cultures in splitting his time between the capital cities of both the United States and Sudan. The music that he most associated himself with was the hip-hop of East coast emcees such as Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest, enjoying the uplifting nature of their lyrics. Only just into his thirties, Oddisee already has a prolific discography of not only solo material but production credits for many high-profile artists as well as a member of the renowned group, the Diamond District. Over the course of his career, Oddisee has established himself as one of the most talented producer/emcees in the game, weaving relatable lyrical content over the top of soul-infused beats.
People Hear What They See is Oddisee’s debut solo album, coming on the heels of practically countless mixtapes and instrumental beat tapes, a culmination of everything he has worked for to this point. The record was written entirely in an outdoor environment, so he could examine the surroundings and people, further opening his watchful eye on the streets. The inquisitive record puts not just the hip-hop world under a microscope, but the entire world as well, beginning with the explosive “Ready To Rock.” The track sets the tone for the entire record, combining funky guitar-based sampling with Oddisee’s verbal acrobatics. On People Hear What They See, Oddisee has the uncanny ability to deliver a memorable hook while not having it feel like he is delivering a memorable hook; he somewhat disguises his chorus-laden record with the turntable pops and hisses that give his music a universal appeal. Simply put, this record is transcendental—the hooks are plentiful to give Oddisee some actual mainstream engagement, but the fact that he never bends to those demands will resonate with listeners who mainly dwell in the underground. Nothing feels forced in either direction.
The record unfolds in an unrelenting manner, feeling lean and without filler. The aptly-titled rock-tinged “Ready To Rock” gives way to “Do It All,” a track where Oddisee highlights his passion for his music. Along with the Diamond District, the D.C. area emcees plot the takeover of multi-faceted hip-hop artists who bear complete control over their music, writing not only the rhymes but handling the production as well. “Do It All” encompasses Oddisee’s skillset effectively; while telling the listener what he is capable of, it never comes across as the type of lyrical ego-stroking that hip-hop is so familiar with. After all, what he is saying is right there for us to see as true. The relative ease that all of this seems to come to Oddisee is perhaps what gives People Hear What They See the feeling of such truthful clarity. As Olivier Daysoul lifts three tracks in the middle to gospel-level soul, from the youthful daydreams of an aspiring artist on “That Real” to love-struck daydreams of an aspiring lover on “The Need Superficial,” Oddisee shows he can spin his tales in just about any direction, and they’ll never waver in their honesty.
Aside from Daysoul’s and the Diamond District’s fluid additions to People Hear What They See, guests Ralph Real and Tranquill lend their services to “Maybes” and “Another’s Grind,” respectively. Though a lot of hip-hop records can suffer from feeling disjointed due to the different artistic visions that guest spots present, Oddisee’s help only serve to reinforce his message and show the unity that he and his musical comrades share. On “Another’s Grind,” Oddisee and Tranquill share verses pointing exactly to that fact—that there just isn’t time to worry about what other artists are doing, and the only thing a person can do is worry about themselves. The track plays like a battle cry to the hip-hop world, saying that Oddisee won’t be adhering to any demands that surround the genre but rather hip-hop better be ready to adhere to his demands. The way the track bounces over a cut-up soul sample with such fierce lyrical gunplay shows the unwavering command of his craft that Oddisee has. He is bringing his fresh take on hip-hop with an intensity that can’t be denied.
As People Hear What They See winds down, Oddisee having fully expounded upon what affects the world closest to him, from hip-hop itself on “Another’s Grind” to the demons that torment American living on “American Greed,” he turns his gaze upon those who have surrounded him from the very beginning. With “You Know Who You Are,” he pens three poignant verses about three distinct types of individuals in his life, always promising to not “mention (their) name in (his) bars,” highlighting the different types of people that one encounters on the rise to prominence. In the first verse he describes a back-stabbing naysayer who tried to bring him down along the way, saying, “I should have seen, mistaking smoke for a little steam / It turned to fire you burned me tryin’ to ruin me.” Secondly, he points his pen in the direction of a supportive figure in his life, saying they “Always cheered me from the bench, now you’re with me as I ball.” Finally, Oddisee seems to give his thanks to whatever higher power it was that put him in the situation to realize his dream. It’s a remarkable, yet simple way to view what one has to deal with in trying to obtain a dream—all of the speed bumps and boosts that have marked Oddisee’s path to where he is today are present on People Hear What They See. In a way, this is his way of getting everything off of his chest, emptying his consciousness onto the conscious world who is listening.
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