Active I are a Seattle-based hip-hop duo consisting of J. Lee Mezus and Paradame, who are both vocalists/rappers and share these skills alternately. Originally the brainchild of J. Lee, Active I released their first album Be Smart Don’t Think in 2006 which was critically acclaimed and earned them a devoted cult following. This was followed by The M Thesis in 2009 which resulted in an Independent Music Award for the track Our Way (best hip-hop lyrics).
After numerous line up changes. Active I relaunched themselves in 2014 as a duo and made this, their third album. Spanning 45 minutes and consisting of eleven tracks, they describe it as ‘a frequently paradoxical blend of misanthropy, cynicism, love and idealism” and this dichotomy extends to the sound itself. It’s a fusion of gritty hip-hop beats with cutting-edge synths and atmospherics that form the backdrop for their intelligent, socially aware lyrics that are either sung or rapped by J. Lee and Paradame.
First track Common Man makes for an arresting opener, a pulsing beat fused with a synth riff that sounds like a nuclear reactor about to explode, while Paradame and J. Lee lay down a mesmeric vocal line with suitably apocalyptic lyrics: “Here in the promised land, fear for the common man…” . They then take turns rapping, at which both are equally distinctive and captivating with a smooth, flowing delivery, the male/female contrast working to great effect. This aspect alone makes them unique on the hip-hop scene.
Second track Lytebryte is just as hard hitting, marrying a sparse, minimalist beat with a haunting, intricate glockenspiel melody over which J. Lee and Paradame lay down a verse each, then combine forces on the memorable sung chorus. The lyrics are acerbic and satirical of society’s materialism: “You’re over here saying get a real job, so tell me what’s so real about driving a Saab?” with the bridge imparting the song’s main message: “If I listen to the system, if I give in, I don’t grow, so I listen to the wisdom in the distance…”.
Third track All Gone takes aim at the American government and its seeming indifference to the health of the nation as they bombard it with fast food and lucrative anti-depressants as well as poisoning other food with artificial sweeteners: “Trying to eat another Big Mac and supersize your Prozac with fries, what if everyone dies…gimme the aspartame, msg and the lies guys..”. It is brutally satirical and all the more powerful for being completely accurate, backed up by the anthemic vocal hook of the title.
Nothing Implied (feat DMac Uno), track four, takes time out to put lesser skilled rappers in their place with some superbly performed lines from Paradame, which rival Eminem for effortless flow and rhythmic ingenuity: “Been the best since the onset, you get on the mic and we ask ‘Is it on yet?’ I act on autonomy, wannabe… lyrics so sick they perform a lobotomy…” .
Provision, the fifth track, is one of the coolest sounding on the album with insistent Lose Yourself style chugging electric guitars, the riffs interweaving to compelling effect. Lyrically, its something of a clarion call for their overall mission: “Anarchism is our vision…”. Fly Together is more laid back and one of the most commercial, with a memorable chorus that would make it suitable as a single. J. Lee shines on this one with a brilliantly quirky, angular rap that bends round corners in terms of rhythmic placement.
Brawndo Bandits is darker sounding both musically and lyrically with brooding low-end synths and a restless, skittish beat combining with a sinister half-whispered rap from J. Lee with Paradame delivering some great lines towards the end: “Don’t f*** with no sheep, don’t roll with no herd, you feed off the residuals while we create styles like real individuals…”.
Tracks eight and nine, The Music and Against The Brain Pt. IV, are the shortest on the album, clocking in at just over two minutes each, the latter featuring another excellent chorus and some hilarious lines from Paradame (“If you wanna doubt you’re about to breath via apparatus…”) and also breathtaking rapping from J. Lee (“It’d be ill advice to take opposition to my mission….”.
Track ten Neu Breed invites some guests to the party (fellow rappers AV, Indiijinis, Prapa Gramma and Lucid Minded all feature) and contains yet another catchy chorus. It leads to the final track Rubber Rooms, a surprisingly mellow closer with a gorgeous descending chord progression on Rhodes. The final lines sum up the mood and message of the album perfectly: “Leave it behind and start over again, I’m done, done, fast as I can, jump on the train, it’s insane, time to ditch the plan…”.
Overall, this is one of the best hip-hop albums I’ve heard in years, lyrically as socially aware and political as Public Enemy’s Chuck D, with music that is constantly inventive and imaginative. J. Lee and Paradame are both masters of their craft and the way their talents combine to work in perfect synergy is something special. The production is slick and cutting edge, so, with several potential singles to choose from, this is surely the album that puts Active I firmly on the map. They should be massive.
Alex Faulkner (The Faulkner Review)
Verdict: 9 out of 10