Three years after their debut album S.I.O.S.O.S. Volume One, the Fugees-inspired Philadelpia/New York rap quartet Spooks are back from the ether with their follow up album Faster Than You Know . . .
Last time round the release of Karma Hotel and the defining, captivating single Things I've Seen caused considerable stirs this side of the Atlantic and brought them notable European success, despite failing to make an impact in their native US market. The question we're all asking is, can they do it again?
Distinctive for the strong, soulful female vocal presence of Ming-Xia and the enthusiastic MCing of Mr Booka-T, Vengeance and Hypno, Spooks pride themselves on being a 'tell it as it as', truth-spinning, non-mainstream, hip-hop alternative. Unfortunately their latest offering fails to deliver on these promises and ends up feeling over-produced, excessively long, and lacking in that creative spark which sifts the good from the average.
The album starts promisingly enough with the catchy title track and current single Faster Than You Know which broods with 'follow your heart ' lyrics and combines an engaging mix of lifting hooks and punchy MCing. It's clear from the outset that Spooks are sticking closely to their guns when it comes to their style, but there's a pervading sense that this time something's missing. And lacking the inspirational thrust of a new direction, this track fails to recapture the unique original edginess of Things I've Seen. Critically, this opening track is actually a high point, as the rest of the album meanders aimlessly as they struggle to turn interesting ideas into good music.
What's frustrating is that there are plenty of good ideas scattered amongst the 20 tracks, and you get the sense that it wouldn't take much to pull a few out, add some substance and creativity and produce a credible album. But after the first few songs you're beginning to wonder if you'll have the staying power to see it through for the entire 74 minutes. Essentially the album is at least seven tracks too long, and is only saved from being a total write-off by a few half decent tunes which are thrown into the mix at random intervals - Hell No, Change and More To Learn adding a much needed injection of musical inventiveness.
Despite their prolific assertion that they're here to 'tell us the truth', the lyrics are all too often uninspiring and over familiar, and tracks like Crazy show that, unlike some of their East Coast contemporaries, these modern day poets still haven't graduated from the 'Bootylicious' school of rapping. "I'm like a bedroom Viking, I keep the night exciting . . ." Please. Inconsistent with their 'message' yet relentlessly predictable, there's nothing in the lyrical department to shout about, despite eager performances by the male trip-hopping trio. Consequently Ming-Xia is often relied upon to salvage tracks with her distinctive, evocative vocals.
If you do make it to the last track, Eulogy - actually three separate tunes tagged together - you might be pleasantly surprised by a refreshingly creative afterthought, although it may leave critics and fans alike wondering if it isn't too little too late to pull the album out of its self-made mediocrity.
Artists such as Aim have shown that you don't have to adhere strictly to the mainstream to make good genre-crossing music. But unless you've got the creative tenacity you're not going to survive long out here, and Faster Than You Know . . . fails to take Spooks to the next level, leaving them adrift in a sea of ideas, with plenty of promise but no real direction.
If you 're a hardcore hip-hop fan this might just rock your boat. For the rest of us, lets hope that Spooks go back to the drawing board and prove that Things I've Seen was not a one-off.
:: Tom West