Mike Viglione (aka Ubiquitous) & Donnie King (aka Godemis) debut their first official release as a group on the Strange Music label with the 13 EP. Ubi and Godi each released solo mixtapes recently which are both available for free download on datpiff.com, but this is the first CES Cru pressing. First things first, your thoughts on this EP will depend largely on how long you’ve been a CESphile. This is undoubtedly a Strange record, aimed at those who may have recently discovered CES by way of Tech N9ne. However, I’ve been a fan of CES since high school, for over a decade (ugh, I’m getting old), and while there have been subtle changes over time, there are a few more prominent differences in this EP. Out of all the hip-hop to ever come out of Kansas City, in terms of quality, I’d say CES Cru and The Guild are my personal top two.
13 is definitely a Strange Music project first and foremost. This is the introduction of CES Cru to “Technicians.” This promotional aspect, of course, is most evident on “It’s Over” which features Tech N9ne and his most frequent Strange collaborator Krizz Kaliko. Krizz offers his signature frantic wordplay and post-production tricks, then Tech N9ne brings his well-known voice inflections and weirdo vocabulary, but it’s the Krizz & Tech chorus that paints it with the Snake and Bat brush. Krizz Kaliko and Tech N9ne may stand out for their stylistic quirks, but if you pay attention to Ubi & Godi, you can predict they’ll have the most solid, raw lyrics of anybody on the label. It seems like the majority of the choruses (chori?) on this EP are crowd-response hooks, which differ from their more conceptual hooks of years past. Maybe I notice it because I’m hearing it recorded rather than live, but it seems like a far cry from the anti-hook of songs like Shut Up from Codename:irongiant. If you ask me, CES is one of those rare cases where I’d rather hear more verses with no chorus at all, but I have a weird distaste for repetition.
There’s a pretty broad variety of beats on 13. Tracks like Livin’ Life and Time Is Now are probably going to resonate with people who are into the more mellow stuff that’s popular these days. Four of the eight tracks are produced by Info Gates, who produced Godemis’s entire Deevil mixtape. He uses a pretty consistent drum kit and maintains a creepy vibe to go along with the “clock strikes 13″ theme of the EP. The main criticism I have about some of these beats, particularly on “Colosseum,” is that I’d like to have it tweaked up like 5 BPM faster. I know most fast rappity-rap acts go with the strategy of double-timing over slow beats. However, CES has evolved as part of a scene larger than themselves for years, which means they’ve done collaborations with a wide variety of musicians and have tailored their rapidity to fit beats of any speed. So, I see no need to give them a rhythm that’s too terribly plodding, because they’re solid enough emcees that it feels like it’s holding them back to treat it with kid gloves and slow it down below 75 BPM.
For me, the standout track is “Klick Clack Bang,” which showcases classic CES cadences and back-and-forth interplay on both the verses and the chorus. If you check out their performance video, it also serves as a great promo for any Strange fans in the rest of the country who haven’t seen them live. Their stage chemistry is unparalleled and if they take this stuff on tour, audiences are going to demand more. I actually see CES Cru as becoming a vital part of the Strange Music strategy in the near future. There haven’t been many successful hip-hop groups in years. In fact, one of the reasons I think solo rappers, R&B singers, and pop stars have become so popular is that labels would rather pay a single artist than have to support a whole band or group. Seeing CES on stage could be a reminder to a lot of hip-hop fans that there are bigger possibilities when great minds collide. If you ever saw them do 4 Nothin’ in triple rounds at Danny’s Big Easy back when Sorceress aka Stitch81 Classic was in the group, the shit was brilliant.
Hopefully, Strange Music fanatics realize what they’ve got with CES Cru. In my opinion, they’ve got the most raw talent on the whole roster. Their verses are solid throughout the record, and when it comes to pure lyricism and cadence, they’ve perfected their craft. However, the content may be alienating to long-time fans. When musicians of any genre begin to make a splash, too many of them start making songs about touring, money, haters, success, and the industry. While those topics are certainly real to the artist, listeners and fans can’t typically identify with them, and plenty of sophomore albums have flopped for that very reason. I’m hoping that this EP will serve as a good bridge to get that proclamation of CES Cru’s triumphant arrival to the Strange Music roster out of the way, and their next full-length will tackle some broader subject matter. If you are new to CES, trust me, they’ve got concepts. This is just the tip of the iceberg.