REVIEW: 9th Wonder – The Wonder Years

9th Wonder recently released his fourth solo LP, The Wonder Years, on his own imprint, It’s A Wonderful World Music Group.

Few hip-hop musicians command the loyalty and respect that 9th Wonder does and it may be this that colours some of the rhymes and skits on this album. Right from the off, there is a short intro discussing the idea of legacy and the lack of control that one has over such matters. But from there on follows a classic, sample-laden album that sits easily in the lineage between DJ Premier and J Dilla. There is nonetheless a concerned tone, to be heard in the rhymes, that leads me to wonder if 9th Wonder isn’t overly worried about the way people view him. For one so accomplished, it is refreshing to see that doubts still creep in. Modesty is an underestimated virtue in hip-hop.

Tracklisting:

01. Make It Big (Remix) feat. Big Remo
02. Band Practice Pt. 2 feat. Phonte & Median
03. Enjoy feat. Warren G, Murs & Kendrick Lamar
04. Streets of Music feat. Tanya Morgan & Enigma of Actual Proof
05. Hearing The Melody feat. Skyzoo, Fashawn & King Mez
06. Loyalty feat. Masta Killa & Halo
07. Now I’m Being Cool feat. Mela Machinko & Mez
08. Never Stop Loving You feat. Terrace Martin & Talib Kweli
09. Piranhas feat. Sene & Sundown of Actual Proof
10. Peanut Butter & Jelly feat. Marsha Ambrosius
11. One Night feat. Terrace Martin, Phonte & Bird and The Midnight Falcons
12. Your Smile feat. Holly Weerd & Thee Tom Hardy
13. No Pretending feat. Raekwon & Big Remo
14. 20 Feet Tall feat. Erykah Badu & Rapsody
15. That’s Love feat. Mac Miller & Heather Victoria
16. A Star U R feat. Terrace Martin, Problem & GQ
17. Band Practice feat. Phonte
18. Me and My Nuh feat. Teedra Moses
19. Base For Your Face feat. Lil B, Jean Grae & Phonte

One of the finest ‘reminiscence/story-of-hip-hop’ tracks I have ever heard comes in the form of the fourth track on the album, Make It Big. Of course, there are others, and nostalgia is a favourite subject with 9th Wonder and his ensemble cast. Street Music deserves a mention just for two Phonte lines; “Young enough for iPods, old enough for walkmans” and “Diddy had Mase and the cops did too”. Simple, but they paint a perfect picture.

There is enough braggadocio for the whole genre when Kanye West and 50 Cent get going, but 9th Wonder has never been cast from the same mould as those more commercial acts. His production credits may include the likes of Drake and Chris Brown, but this is an artist who separates himself by the subtlety of his music and not the frontal assault.

He wisely surrounds himself with his musical family, regular collaborators and fellow label acts such as Phonte of Little Brother, Erykah Badu, Khrysis and a whole host of others – including Warren G, Raekwon and Murs. Every track bounces, never stuttering and never harsh. This is especially highlighted on tracks like Loyalty and Never Stop Loving You – a saxophone and brass-drenched track featuring Terrace Martin and Talib Kweli that makes perfect use of backing vocals from Tyrone Davis’ song of the same name.

There are unremarkable songs present on the album, but these are only relative to the high standard of the others. In comparison with 99% of hip-hop’s output, they are diamonds in the proverbial mud. In fact, the Erykah Badu collaboration, 20 Feet Tall, is one low point, not for Badu herself (she is cracking) but the music which never really sizzles on my taste buds.

Ultimately, this is an almost perfect soulful hip-hop album that would have the late J Dilla reaching for the MPC. It is a little long, but this is not the point. Excellence is not the point of this album, it is just the main ingredient.

Also, be sure to check out the trailer for the documentary on 9th Wonder’s life over at Vimeo.