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Sounds like … the underground vibe of Blackstar, Deepspace5, and Madvillain, plus the production and turntable magic of Hi-Tek, DJ Shadow and PremierAt a glance … more progressive than efforts past, Pro Pain is the crowning achievement of Mars ILL's career so far and one of the best albums of the yearTrack Listing Pro Pain (Intro) Say So Sound Off Too Strong to Change Dog Eared Page More Jus the Two of Us (Interlude) Stand Back and Watch Wicked Ways Saturday Night Special Glam Rap Higher (Interlude) Effortless Write of Passage When Heaves Scrapes the Pavement I Is We Out (Outro)
The Pro Pain chronicles: If everything had gone according to plan, Mars ILL's second album with Gotee Records would have released in October of 2004. Should've, until legal issues arose. As a hip-hop duo with an underground, old-school vibe, their work depends largely on homegrown beats and tracks, many of which are based around audio samples from old, long-out-of-print records—that is, vinyl records.
From there on out, the drill is simple: DJ Dust picks a portion of a record he loves, chops it up, interpolates it into one of his tracks, and emcee Manchild raps over it. Sounds simple enough, but it got complicated when EMI—Gotee's label partner—took notice of the original Pro Pain—the one slated for that '04 release. The album was brilliant in every sense, and the higher-ups really wanted to get behind it, but they were worried that the myriad samples would cause legal entanglements if not cleared for use. Mars ILL argued that chopping up the samples would sidestep that issue, but the lawyers didn't buy that. So the clearance process began and, much to the group's chagrin, only some samples were cleared and green-lighted.
Now 533 days overdue, Pro Pain is finally here, three songs leaner and with a few tracks retooled or added. A comparative listen to versions 1.0 and 2.0 of the album—the media did receive pre-release copies of the original Pro Pain—reveals not much has changed. The results are still excellent. If you thought 2003's Backbreakanomics was a breakthrough for Mars ILL, Pro Pain trumps it, albeit slightly. For one, the disc is more buoyant and celebratory, evading some of the sinister, downbeat nature of efforts past. Make no mistake, though—this is still a very much underground affair, so party-rap fans and crunk aficionados are advised to look elsewhere.
Even in light of all legalities plaguing the album, it's ironic that the production values on Pro Pain are still some of the highest of any Mars ILL record. Dust keeps growing as a producer, and the way he samples stuff—whether it's live instruments, horns, vocal snippets, et al—is remarkable. In "Wicked Ways," he splices up portions of "Love in Them There Hills," a song from under-the-radar '60s R&B group The Vibrations, so that the vocal sample actually completes Manchild's thoughts in the hook. It's funny because in the liner notes the group indicates this song "ruined our lives" (referring to the sampling fiasco), but it happens to be one of the high points of Pro Pain.
But the true zenith is "More," a pensive, slow-burning cut featuring Ahmad Jones of 4th Avenues Jones and soul singer Anthony David. Accentuated with pulsating guitars and a harmonic hook, Manchild and Jones trade verses about the things we need more of—honest politicians, long-lasting art, truth, faith that's put into practice. Of the 13 tracks, six of them go this collaborative route, with Mars ILL partnering with a score of underground friends, including Cappadonna of Wu Tang Clan, Prince Po of Organized Konfusion, and X:144.
As evidenced in "More," the group is in tiptop lyrical shape, continuing to infuse deep thought into a genre that typically settles for the lowest common denominator. "The goal is to educate and entertain you / Make your head nod but still give you brain food," spits Manchild in "Sound Off," a mission statement of sorts repeated in different forms throughout Pro Pain. "Dog Eared Page," "Stand Back and Watch," "Glam Rap" and "Say So" all carry that same theme—that Mars ILL has something to offer that the rap game currently lacks.
And really that's the only qualm about Pro Pain. Manchild is the quintessential emcee—bold, eloquent, articulate, intelligent, poetic, spiritual—but part of me still wishes his rhymes had a stronger social edge to them. He certainly possesses the poise, penmanship and gravitas to do that—remember "Alpha Male," off Backbreakanomics?—but somehow he mostly favors talking about hip-hop culture, the superficiality of mainstream rap, and the faith that drives his group's art. Those are all noble themes, but for a group that's overflowing with this much talent, one would expect something with a tighter grip on the current social and spiritual climate.
That minor quibble notwithstanding, Pro Pain is still one of the best albums of the year, hip-hop or otherwise—a labor of love that was a long time coming but whose advent was well worth the wait.