Skyzoo and Torae’s Barrel Brothers is consciously steeped in the history of New York hip-hop. The intro opens with a vocal sample of Flava Flav, while “Tunnel Vision” is built around a similar sample from Digable Planets. There are lyrical shoutouts to “99 Problems,” hating on Instagram, and the lead single “Blue Yankee Fitted” is an ode to a staple of New York fashion. Almost all of the beats are at least cousins of the sound of classic New York rap. It’s refreshing to hear an album work so hard to put itself in context without being overly concerned with claiming to be totally different, but that gives Skyzoo and Torae its own set of problems. Barrel Brothers is a very consistent project, but that consistency means it rarely rises up to distinguish itself.
This history-heavy, aware approach is great in a lot of ways—Barrel Brothers takes a firm stand for the traditions of New York hip-hop—but it also means that it can sometimes be hard to listen to Sky and Torae without wanting to just flip on the classics they’re tossing out—those songs are indelible for a reason, and appearing to trade on them, or at least play spot the reference, makes some of Barrel Brothers forgettable. The tracks on the album reveal themselves to be beholden to history in a way that often prevents them from engaging in anything new—and why would you listen to music reminding you how much other classic rap you could be listening to?
There are definitely moments where this approach pays off in full. “4 Bar Friday” more than lives up to the promise of its title, playing off soul samples to give both rappers engaging verses that showcase their lyrical interplay and creative comfort with each other in a punchy two and a half minutes. “Memorabilia” turns the passage of time on its head, turning Sky and Torae into stars unwilling to give away their autographs for free. Here, as on most of the album, Sky and Torae’s lyrical flows are on point (though the places where they’re a bit off are also the songs where the beats are a little weaker).
But Barrel Brothers really shines when it gives in to its more offbeat impulses. Highlight “Movie Album (Skit)” finds Sky and Torae relaxed enough to sound like they’re just playing around while Gabonese producer Auréli1 a.k.a. Tiga draws in ears with a soft, moving piano that changes the track into something far more contemplative, a sketch rather than a fully polished song. It’s an enticing look at what might have been had Barrel Brothers sounded a bit less professional and more raw.
Unfortunately, Barrel Brothers doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the tracks that made it so anticipated to begin with, particularly the original “Barrel Brothers” (off Skyzoo and Illmind’s Live From The Tape Deck). That cut uses its Four Tops sample to build something reminiscent of classic New York hip-hop with just enough vocal manipulation and tweaking to make it sound like something new for the heads, and Sky and Torae’s dueling verses distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. The bulk of the album doesn’t quite make the grade established by that track, because Skyzoo and Torae are such natural collaborators, their talents blend together.
Really, the producers working with Skyzoo and Torae are often the biggest musical draw. Some of the beats don’t help separate the verses from the pack as well as they might, but others beats are far more effective at evoking the vibe Sky and Torae are shooting for—frequent collaborator !llmind builds the spooky beat for the appropriately titled “Tunnel Vision” around Ishmael Butler rapping, “We be to rap what key be to lock” on “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” in a way that distinguishes it from, say, E-40’s “Yay Area.” AntMan Wonder’s horn-infused beat for “Memorabilia” perfectly captures the vibe of the undying legends Skyzoo and Torae rap about without a hint of tiredness. Those production successes aren’t to the rappers’ detriment, though—it’s better to be challenged by exciting beatmakers—but Barrel Brothers would have been truly remarkable if the pair had fully risen to the challenge laid down by their collaborators.—Eric Thrum