CunninLynguists – A Piece of Strange
Prior to 2005 the CunninLynguists made a bit of a name for themselves among big hip-hop fans with 2001’s Will Rap for Food and 2003’s Southernunderground, but based on those albums I’m not sure anyone could have seen A Piece of Strange coming. I’m a big fan of their first two albums but they took a much different approach on both of them. They didn’t really create their signature sound yet – they weren’t doing much that was new on those first two albums but they were very well-executed.
Both Deacon the Villain and Kno were known as rappers who used humorous and somewhat immature wordplay to get their thoughts across and none of that carried over onto A Piece of Strange. This is a very mature album and you won’t hear any songs where they just list off ways to mess with people anymore (sidenote: that song from Will Rap For Food, “Fukinwichu”, should still be listened to because it’s hilarious. “Challenge Christopher Reeve to a game of Twister” / “Kidnap an Amish family and lock ’em inside a Circuit City”).
I’ve noticed a bit of a trend with CunninLynguists albums (and this is one trend that A Piece of Strange actually does follow). All of their group albums start off with an intro song that has no rapping on it which transitions into the second song on the album. The second song is always the one of the fastest tracks on the album (Lynguistics / Southernunderground / Valley of Death). “Since When” is the second track on this album and it too is an energetic song. Even though it’s more or less braggadocio rap, upon hearing the song longtime fans would have immediately been able to tell that this album was going to be a step into a more mature direction for CunninLynguists.
“Since When” works as a great way to draw the listener to the album (it was the first song I’ve ever heard by these guys and was hooked immediately) but after that track the album shifts to a slower, more somber tone. This is really the type of album that is designed to be listened to late at night with the lights off. Kno did a lot of rapping on the group’s first two albums but on this one he stepped away from the mic (he has one verse on the whole album) to concentrate on the production and it was a really smart move. This is one of the best produced hip-hop albums of all time.
One thing I’ve seemed to notice with this album is that it’s so well-rounded that fans of the album can’t agree on what tracks are the best. Everyone seems to have different favorites on this album. My favorite track on the first half of the album is “Brain Cell”, which is the only track on the album that has verses from all three members in the group. The second verse (Kno’s) might be my favorite verse I’ve ever heard.
I don’t want to make it sound like I’m short-changing the first half of this album because the first half is great, but the second half of the album is just mindblowing. The last six tracks in particular are probably my favorite stretch of 6 tracks in a row that I’ve heard on any album.
The first of these six tracks is “The Gates”, assisted by QN5 labelmate Tonedeff. I know this review is starting to sound like hyperbole overload, but this is one of the five best hip-hop songs I’ve ever heard (and also one of the slowest). It’s four minutes long, but I wish it was longer because when it’s over it always leaves me wanting more. That’s never a bad thing.
After an interlude the next full-length song is “Hellfire” which starts off a little stupid in the first 20 seconds but the rest of it is awesome. This and “Since When” are the only fast/energetic songs on the entire album; this one is really something that deserves to be played really loud to appreciate it fully. After “Hellfire” comes “Remember Me (Abstract/Reality)” — if I’m ever debating the best hip-hop producers of all-time with someone I’ll throw Kno in the conversation and link them to this song. It’s an instrumental that’s over four minutes long yet it still manages to be one of the best songs on a stellar album.
The album closes with “What’ll You Do?” and then “The Light”. These are slower tracks that are an excellent way to close out the album. It never ceases to amaze me how whenever I listen to A Piece of Strange all the way through, these tracks make me look back and think “that was really awesome”.
I could probably talk about this album for another 1,000 words but I won’t. I haven’t even touched on the fact that this is a concept album and tells a story from song to song (and the story just adds to how brilliant I think this album is). A Piece of Strange is really an unbelievable album from start to finish.