Smoke N Mirrors
SNM gets off to a thunderous start courtesy of Scoop Deville's bass-heavy remake of The Stylistics '70s soul classic "Children Of The Night" (which is inexplicably billed as Smoke N Mirrors title-track). And while onetime Dove Shack vocalist Bo Roc's crooned chorus slows down the songs momentum somewhat, B-Real's lament on the struggles of living that late night street life atop Scoop's stellar sample flip makes for an impressive reinterpretation of the Stylistics original.
West coast producer-on-the-rise, and son of Latin rap forefather Kid Frost, Scoop Deville contributes another one of the album's standout sonics via its lead single, "Don't Ya Dare Laugh," by uniting a Dr. Dre-esque foundation of ominous piano chords and blipping synths with a cleverly-used vocal sample from Suzanne Vega's 1987 pop-smash "Tom's Diner."
But the polished productions on SNM aren't limited to Scoop's two contributions. B-Real himself jumps behind the boards for the more traditionally experimental Cypress-style jams "Fire" [click to listen] (the album's second single) and "1 Life." The former being a Reggae-driven collaboration with Nas' new musical partner Damian Marley, wherein which the Smoke-a-Thon participant pays homage to that sticky icky. And the latter being a Spanish-guitar-and-trumpet blessed reunion with Sen Dog featuring the "Latin thugs" spitting in Spanglish.
However, outside of the few aforementioned highlights, chinks in the sonic armor of SNM become audible very quickly. Most of the album's remaining production ranges from listenable midtempo Westside soundscapes courtesy of Audio Hustlaz beatsmith J. Turner (the pinnacle of his four productions being for B-Real's story of a dealer and his wanna be jacker on "Dude Vs. Homie") to horribly generic creations like Fifth's synth-string laden "Get That Dough."
Leaning towards the tolerable but not quite standout side are the self-produced "Dr. Hyphenstein" (which sports powerful hydraulic drums, but is tarnished by Snoop Dogg's painfully obvious freestyled verse) and the Alchemist [click to red] laced "6 Minutes," whose menacing track seems to lose its growl as the song progresses, suffocating Real's detailing of how here today, gone tomorrow rappers rise and fall.
And tipping towards the completely uninspired side of the sound spectrum is "Everything U Want," wherein the sole appearance from a member of Real's new Duck Down familia is squandered. Buckshot's scolding of less grind-minded artists is sacrificed to Soopafly's lazily chopped orchestral sample (Soopa's surprisingly subpar "PSA" inspired production on "Gangsta Music" isn't much better).
With no trackwork from DJ Muggs, SNM is ultimately missing the Bomb Squad-meets-bong smoke-inspired psychedelia of classic Cypress. And in an apparent attempt to separate his solo offering from his contributions to the Hill, Real has not only foregone working with his longtime audio provider but has also tried to tame the more helium-sounding stretches to his signature nasal delivery. Unfortunately this less laidback and more mechanical sounding approach leaves Real's staccato flow sounding uneasy a great deal of the time (with rushed rhymes oftentimes crammed into bars).
But B-Real shows that he is capable of crafting a captivating verse even within these self-imposed sound and style constraints, overpowering fellow Audio Hustla Salaam Wreck's cheesy bounce beat on "When They Hate You" to engagingly explain what would've happened had he not left the streets for the rap game: "When I spit it I'm committed, it's a blessing, I'm grateful / Could've been one of the many feeling bitter and hateful / Could've gave up on my dreams, steady bangin' and slangin' / Servin' fiends on the corner with the red rag hangin'."
And while it should be noted that had Scoop Deville produced more of its tracks, and the unimpressive cameos from B-Real protégé, and Tangled Thoughts emcee, Young De [click to read] (who appears on a third of the album's cuts) been left on the cutting room floor, a much less uneven effort would have likely emerged, Smoke N Mirrors is proof that nothing can mask the fact that after nearly two decades B-Real still has the magic touch on the mic.