As U Were fails as both an exercise in Electro-nostalgia and as a stylistic departure who's proven style is so inherently unique.
On paper 1997’s Latyrx was an album that should not have worked. Its title was a hybrid of the names of the Bay Area artists who joined forces on the project, Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truth Speaker. These two emcees from DJ Shadow’s Solesides crew had flows so idiosyncratic that at times you’d find yourself asking, “Can I even call this rapping?” But that was what was so phenomenal about the project. Both rhymers could go from sleepy drawls to sing-song rants jam-packed with so much Pynchon-inspired stream of consciousness that the included lyrics sheet was both a necessity and a joy to follow along with. Add to the mix a backdrop of murky Funk provided by Shadow, Chief Xcel and Lyrics Born himself, and you have a near-perfect album that still sounds ahead of its time.
Unfortunately the innovation of Latyrx just magnifies the messy As U Were, the newest full length from Lyrics Born. As U Were fails as both an exercise in Electro-nostalgia and as a stylistic departure from an emcee who shouldn’t need any departure since his own style is so inherently unique.
The album has the best of intentions but comes with too little too late, in a year where Cee-Lo Green and the late Camu Tao have made similar genre-bending efforts. This an album that simultaneously manages to sound candy-coated and watered down. Even the skits don’t offer much of a respite. How many times have we heard an album’s artist riffing with the voice of a slimy record label exec who is trying to convince him to sound less “street” and more “Pop”? The problem here is that it sounds like Lyrics Born actually lost the argument.
On songs like “We Live By The Beat,” LB’s voice struggles to rise above layer upon layer of unnecessary electro fluff while he scrambles to pull back a beat that ends up swallowing it’s own creator. The vocals on “I’ve Lost Myself” come across as basically yelling as he once again strains to reach the higher registers through an overload of plug-in effects. What’s worse is that the guest vocalist singing the chorus is given a rich boost to flow loud and clear over the mix. Not only does this break any cohesiveness but it makes Lyrics Born sound like that much less of the proven vocalist he is. And trying to “really” sing is something this album refuses to give up on so much so that it ends up feeling downright uncomfortable.
Even as a guilty pleasure, As U Were comes up short as moments like the scatting on “Oh Baby” proves that cheese can still spoil. The rhyming style that Cameo adopted often started sounding tired halfway into Cameo albums. So it’s inevitable than an emcee relying on more of the same will have a hard time keeping the listener on his side.
Lyrics Born has always been in the upper tier when it comes to rappers performing their material live and his past albums were boosted by how good you knew the tracks would sound in a club. As U Were is an album that is so unnecessarily busy that it beats the listener over the head even coming through headphones. And unfortunately that’s not a pleasurable beating in a Dalek or Cannibal Ox way but the worst kind ... an uninteresting beating. Hopefully the next project from Lyrics Born comes sooner rather than later and uses his love of music from all eras to make something that relies more on himself than on a sound from the back catalogues of others.