With J Dilla and Proof gone to that great recording studio in the sky, Slim Shady in semi-retirement and Slum Village's output nearly as sporadic as Presidential elections, casual Hip Hop heads might think the Detroit scene is as played-out as the Running Man and high-top fades. But in the wake of Black Milk's promising Popular Demand and now Phat Kat's impressive Carte Blanche, it's clear that the Motor City's mantle as a headquarters for hard-hitting hip-hop rests in extremely capable hands.
Of course, it ain't like the emcee also known as Ronnie Cash is a newcomer to the game. Discovered after handing a demo to Guru and Primo back in 1994, Phat Kat was Dilla's (then still knows as Jay Dee) original collaborator, working together in the group First Down long before Slum Village made the DJ/production mastermind a star. But when the group's deal fell through due to record label restructuring, the Detroit native stayed on the grind by putting out indie projects and making guest appearances, eventually getting signed to a solo deal in 2004. Unfortunately, his solo debut, Undeniable, also fell through the increasingly expansive music industry cracks, providing plenty of fuel for the fire he spits on his sophomore effort.
"My old label they don't really want Kat to bubble/ Cuz they know me and my team plus green spells trouble/ Silver spoon suckas, y'all don't want to meet in a struggle/ Cross my path, I'll leave yo ass face-down in a puddle," he rhymes fiercely in the opening bars of My Old Label before unleashing another dozen or so intricately-constructed bars that make it clear he does NOT intend to be overlooked again. That slammin' track is just one of five on the album produced by J Dilla: There's also the freaky futuristic funk of the opening "Nasty Ain't It," the driving beat and squealing Bomb Squad accents of "Cold Steel" (featuring Elzhi), the off-kilter Asian influence of aspiring strip club anthem "Game Time" and the closing "Don't Nobody Care About Us," a rare mediocre track from the late, great beat-master.
But Dilla isn't the only production mastermind at work here. Young RJ brings a smoother sound to the string-laden "Get It Started," the vibraphone-driven sex-you-up soul of "Lovely" (featuring sultry backing vocals from Melanie Rutherford), and the gripping storytelling of "True Story Pt. 2," a nostalgic trip down the memory lane of Detroit Hip Hop history. But it's Black Milk who proves Kat's perfect partner in crime on "Cash 'Em Out," a maddeningly infectious track (featuring a guest spot by Loe Louis) truly deserving of mainstream airplay, and "Hard Enough," a grimy hardcore track featuring Fat Ray that proves Ronnie Cash has no plans of cutting ties to his gritty underground roots.
Forget what you heard about 8 Mile: This is the real sound of Detroit Hip Hop. And while not every track here is a winner, there is more than enough evidence to prove that Phat Kat is an emcee worth watching.