Honors English: “State of the Art”
Honors English’ “State of the Art” is the dopest album I’ve ever watched. Yes, watched. That wasn’t a typo. I’ll get into it more later, but I just wanted to start by saying that every aspect of this album was done top notch. From the production to the lyrics to the presentation – it’s one of the best all-around projects in years. Independent artist, take notice – the bar has officially been raised. Don’t ask me for a review on your little album until you can surpass what’s been done here.
I haven’t written a review in months and have pretty much kept my opinions to the more mainstream artists. This was so well done, though, that it left me nearly no choice.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me just say that I have worked with Needlz on music before and consider him a close friend of mine, even outside of music. .
Having said that, I also considered each member of Slaughterhouse – as well as their management, girlfriends, sidepieces and fans – friends at one time, before writing my review of their self-titled album for HipHopGame.com. I was especially harsh in the review, which caused our relationships to sever with several members of the group. My reputation and integrity are far too important to me to ever sugar-coat a review for ANYbody. If I didn’t like an album, but wanted to do a favor for someone? I just wouldn’t write anything at all.
Conversely – despite all the public and private bickering Wale and I have done, I thoroughly enjoyed his album and gave it a very favorable review, despite almost wanting to not like it. Again, it’s more important to me that people trust the words that I write and that they’ll always consider my opinion unbiased. It’s always about the music.
Now, on to the project.
Honestly? My expectations for the project were somewhat tempered. While I’m a huge fan of Needlz production and knew that the music would be good, I don’t like many rappers. I had heard a few of the songs really early on in the project and wasn’t hooked on English (then going by the moniker “E-Clipz”). I really didn’t like his voice. Also, having just finished creating my fourth album, I had a strong understanding for just how difficult of a process it is. Despite being a great producer, Needlz had no experience building an album from the ground up. I expected growing pains. I’ve always offered to share my experiences with him, but many things you just have to learn through trial and error.
Man, was I wrong about the growing pains? Needlz did such an impressive job on this that I’m almost embarrassed it took me four tries to create Sorry I’m Late. First off – this is NOT a solo album, much like SIL wasn’t a John Regan album. Sorry was a Culture VI collaboration album by John, YZ and myself. Much the same way, State of the Art is a collaboration between Needlz and Honors English.
Let’s start with the obviously standout – the production. This is, by far, one of the greatest produced hip-hop albums of this entire era. I am not saying that as an exaggeration. This album, top to bottom, has nothing but amazing music behind it. It keeps you engaged. It had energy. It pushed the boundaries. Needlz has been responsible for some amazing music before, but this might’ve been his greatest ever work.
For example, he starts off the album with “The Name Is”, where he displays not one, not two, but three beats that might’ve been the three best beats on many other rappers’ albums. It switches at each verse and each beat outdoes the previous one. It sets such a mood and expectation for the album. An expectation that it somehow manages to meet and exceed.
The drums and the sample on Crazy are….well…..crazazy! The bounce on Palin and Bachman, the emotion on Unstoppable – perfect. Burn spends 3 minutes vibing without drums, only to have percussion and an choir sample come in and add a new energy. The album is full of gems like this.
And Cymbals on the Sidewalk?? That song should have it’s one fucking review. I’m not sure I’ve heard a beat this good in years. The strings? The emotion? Everything sets such an amazing mood. And the lyrics? They tell such an intricate story. I’m not sure many emcees could’ve actually done this beat justice. Only a handful of artists could’ve accomplished this and Honors English did.
Talking about lyrics, Honors does a very admirable job of keeping up with the outstanding production, which is no small feat. Every song is conceptual and strong lyrically. Every song is full of emotion. There are clever punchlines and insightful observations. On the Needlz & Bink! Produced Short Story Long, he actually manages to outrap the beat!! Second Chances is so intimate that you can easily visualize the three stories. Flying High surprisingly doesn’t see Lupe rapping circles around the newcomer, as you would imagine. It features them going toe-to-toe and trading great verses.
And did I mention that you can watch the album? In a unique move that I can only hope gets adapted by more artists, there is a visual version of the album. No, they didn’t shoot 13 different videos. There are 3. But for every other song, there is a visual rendition along with the lyrics from each song. To have your lyrics displayed on a 60 inch screen is extremely EXPOSING and something that not many artists would be willing to do. Honors’ lyrics, however, stand the test of being read. There is nothing more humbling than having your lyrics read out loud – no beat, nothing to drown out the words. That’s why I love spoken word. It’s the most honest form of hip-hop.
This album needs to be performed with a live band. It basically HAS to happen.
Cymbals on the Sidewalk is one of the best hip-hop songs I’ve heard since the start of the decade.
The negatives? What didn’t I like about the project? Well, my main thing is it took me forever to get used to his voice. There’s just something about it that holds me back form listening to the album as consistently as I’d like. It’s the accent, the way he says his words, I don’t know. As good as English was, I can’t help wonder what this album would’ve sounded like if it was produced for a Joe Budden, Skyzoo or Lupe. It may have been an all-time classic. I had a similar feeling when I created Sorry I’m Late. John sounded amazing on it, but I almost feel like it was handicapped because it didn’t have someone proven on it.
Should I fault Honors for that? Probably not. But it was what stuck out to me.
Also, I felt the album had a very similar feel throughout and the songs didn’t do enough to differentiate each other. Second Chances, Burn, State of the Art – they all had a distinct feel. But too many times, I found myself checking the playlist to see which song was playing. That has a lot to do with having one producer. It’s a gift and curse. Having one prouder gives the album a cohesive feel, but sometimes it can be too cohesive. I think he would’ve benefited from reaching out to some other producers for a few of the songs, just to give it diversity. Not that I think Needlz would’ve gotten that were necessarily better….just different.
But overall, those are very picky things. I don’t listen to many independent albums. I haven’t been this excited about an album since Skyzoo’s “The Salvation”. Before that? It was Lupe’s “Food & Liquor”. It’s rare that I feel this strongly about a project. If you trust my opinion at all, go and download this album at www.honorsenglishmusic.com. Watch the visual album. It’s more than just an independent project. It’s an experience.
Production: 9.75 Concepts: 8 Lyrics: 9 Overall: 8.75