It’s usually tough to dominate an album if you don’t utter a word, but 9th Wonder managed to do just that. His production takes top billing on almost every one of the 25-tracks on 9th Wonder Presents: Jamla Is The Squad. Each beat is seemingly better than the last and choosing a favorite instrumental on the project is next to impossible. It gives a strong foundation for a wide variety of underground-certified MCs (mainly from Jamla) to flex their lyrical muscle. Some of the out-of-house work is contributed by legends like Phonte, Talib Kweli, Buckshot, and Pete Rock who should all feel at home with the album’s laid-back, anti-mainstream hip-hop direction.
All of the rapping is competent, but there are a few performers who are brave and skilled enough to rise above and attempt to snatch your attention away from 9th Wonder and The Soul Council (Khrysis, Kash, Amp, and Eric G)’s mastery. Rapsody, who has become close to a household name at this point, is at her absolute best on the project. The previously released “Illuminaughty” is as hard and haunting as the first time we heard it, and her aggression makes “Betty Shabazz” one of the album’s standouts. The song starts off on a tame note, but lines like “I’m ignoring all that female rapper shit is ignorant / competing with every MC / come step if you want to see” ring out like warning shots.
Another standout is the upstart Chicagoan and Jamla signee Add-2. On a project with a chiller disposition, he brings necessary energy and his first appearance on “Bomber & A Fly Chick” is a jolt to the listener’s system. Reminiscent of early ’90s Common Sense, his bubbly, energetic delivery is packed with an audible likability that pairs perfectly with the organ and break beat gem 9th Wonder crafted. His raps are equally as impressive on “Iron Mic” and his line “9th gave me a shot / I ain’t gave the ball back yet” is a fitting vocalization of his show stealing performance.
Although those contributions are much appreciated, they are ultimately not much more than a distraction from 9th’s excellence. At many points on the project it doesn’t matter who is rapping because 9th and his crew’s boardwork is impeccable enough to get lost in. From the head-banging thumps of “Warriors” to the delicate strings of “Drive Home,” the soundscape is varied, always rich, and never boring.
While 9th and his group of talented producers does enough to carry this one on his own, there are times where the rapping lags far behind. No one artist, song, or verse is noticeably awful but much of it lacks excitement or anything to make it stand out. It seems like almost anyone could sound good on these beats, and some of the MCs really put that idea to the test. This compilation is intended to be a showcase for 9th’s Jamla artists, but one can’t help but appreciate the output of a true maestro. As it should, the album ends with 30-plus seconds of uninterrupted instrumentation. A final gift from a super producer.—Max Goldberg