The Lowdown, 9/18/10
Owls seem to be all over the place in 2010 - Oldominion's reoccurring insignia, album covers by the Deftones or Ill Bill, and even a new 3D children's film about talking owl guardians. There are owls that charge in talons first and others that sit back and watch, growing wiser. Qwel & Maker accomplish both.
Qwel & Maker's "Owl" not only holds the crown for best album in a month loaded with quality independent hip hop releases, but also represents the best Qwel & Maker album to date. And by that, I don't only mean the best album of these two as a duo, but the best Qwel album, the best Maker album, and one of the best albums released by Galapagos4. This is a perfect album to introduce new listeners to the talented MC and producer, and also an album that will make longtime Qwel & Maker fans flip out over how damn great it is.
As a rhymer, Qwel is in top form here. The style of complex rhyme patterns and intricate lyricism that he's developed over the years has really taken shape into something that he can claim as his own, and he shines over the course of the album. One complaint I've had with some of Qwel's past albums like "The Harvest" is that while his full throttle rhyming can sound amazing in individual songs, hearing that style over the course of a full album can get tiresome. Thankfully, "Owl" is loaded with variety as far as mood and tempo go, with calmer tracks like "El Camino" balancing out the insane rap patterns on songs like "The Down Dumbing." Another notable improvement from Qwel on this album is his writing, which retains his original style of penning verses while touching upon more down-to-Earth subjects than his last few albums. Now that his four horsemen albums are a wrap, Qwelly seems to come across as less overtly religious and more focussed on tackling subjects that people can relate to. These include a track about alcoholism and abandonment that incorporates interesting river metaphors, a track about life on the road, a story about a man that's incarcerated, and words to the wise for the younger generation.
Maker, for his part, outdoes himself on the music side of things with raw soulful production that really takes you back to the things you loved about hip hop in the first place. I thought his production on Glue's "Catch as Catch Can" was damn funky, but on this album he really takes that formula to the next level. The beats sound extra dirty but polished at the same time, and one can't help but wonder whether the Now-Again catalog that he remixed had some influence on his choice of soulful sampling. The beats are never static, always shifting and changing in subtle ways to accommodate Qwel's rapid-fire flows. Many banging tracks on here, my personal favorite being "Letting Life Pass By" with it's understated bass-line and brilliantly flipped vocal sample - one of the year's best beats in my book!
Anyway, bottom line: this is brilliant stuff and all of you indie rap fans ought to go out of your way to acquire yourselves a copy! Amoeba Berkeley still has a few (keyword: few) digital download cards left that come free with the album and give you access to a remix album featuring mighty fine re-interpretations by Joe Beats, DJ Vadim, and Emynd amongst others... so you live in the East Bay, come get you some! Sample song below: