2012 is undeniably the year of producer/emcee team-ups. However the creative union of J.Rawls and Casual, extending the baseball analogy, is so far out of left field that it’s like someone throwing a foul ball from the nosebleed seats. J.Rawls is better known as the jazzy ingénue of underground stalwarts Lone Catalysts and Casual is a founding member of west coast super-clique Heiroglyphics. Together the two have released a standout project, Respect Game or Expect Flames, which finds both at the top of their craft.
As disparate as their respective styles seem, Casual and J.Rawls have an artistic synergy that is unrivaled. Rawls trades in his sleepy laidback steez for an engaged and tenacious boom-bap that still retains the jazzy musicality that’s been his calling card. Casual brings to the table a flow that’s as off-kilter and unconventional as a conversation with a drunk uncle at a family gathering, free associating yet ruthlessly locked in on his chosen theme. In the midst of Casual’s free-spirited stylings is such a plethora of wordplay that the inattentive listener could miss if they blink during his verbal onslaughts.
J.Rawls provides a roots reggae-tinged head bopper in “Nota Problem” and Casual has fun with the canvas he’s been given, spitting fun tongue-twisting verses in between the hilarious window dressing of the disgruntled patois ramblings of a female partygoer who ultimately gets security called on her. It had the potential to be a paint-by-numbers requisite reggae track but they pulled off something much more entertaining. Rhyme vets The Mystery School lend rebellious bars to “The Authority”, a track that utilizes the same classic whiplash-inducing bassline that Madlib furnished Slum Village with for the track “Earl Flynn.” Rawls does more with it by topping the infectious drums off with some breathy, barely-there chopped vocals and mournful keys.
Casual is easily one of the most slept-on emcees in hip-hop and on an album full of blazing 16s “La Danse Du Fessie” is a tour-de-force of penmanship. Like the rest of Respect Game Or Expect Flames, double entendres, multis, alliteration, punchlines and deep insight are all here in abundance. Casual rips it harder than your barbershop movie bootlegger but with an ease, sense of humor and casual flair that makes it easy to take his skills on the mic for granted. He’s similar to MF Doom in that each successive listen yields more and more gems. “Ain’t Tryna Here” is also representative of the album as a whole; varying degrees of doper-than-thou platitudes along with nuggets of knowledge and consciousness. J.Rawls serves up a deceptively multi-layered heatrock while his rhyming cohort drops science on everything ranging from ancient Kemet, Kush, Egypt and western appropriation of African religious deities to the centuries-long Moorish presence in Europe.
Respect Game or Expect Flames is an appropriate mission statement for Casual and J.Rawls, and as the chasm between commercial and ‘real’ hip-hop grows, it’s more prescient than ever. This bicoastal collaboration is easily one of the most consistently dope and balanced albums in 2012, with J.Rawls exhibiting more aspects of his repertoire and Casual spitting flames while maintaining a message endemic to somebody from the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. Hopefully such unlikely producer/emcee pairings are an indication of a new template on the horizon. As commercial rap gets more artistically stagnant and homogenous, artists in the underground crusade against the bullshit by taking up arms with allies from around the way places to produce stellar, more authentic music. In the meantime though, Respect Games or Expect Flames is a crowd pleaser regardless of geographic origin and is sure to win both artists new fans on both coasts.
– T. Love