The cover of Driving Songs Volume One: An Alternate Route, the long-overdue release by Chi-town emcee Jeff Baraka, aka O Type Star, features a photo of the rapper as a toddler posing against a Pinto, his orange jacket matching the car’s hue. Although this image, along with the album’s title, conjure in the mind of the listener the soundtrack to a voyage, the record’s content is very much grounded in Chicago. Unfortunately the disc, which includes features by Common, Slug of Atmosphere, and Binary Star among others, could stand to be more fuel-efficient.
Baraka, who is a member of the Chicago area’s indie-rap retinue, a performance poet, and a media personality, identifies the thing undergirding the multiplicity in his roles and artistic ventures on the opening track, “Ignition/Motivation (1st Movement).” The song features a sample of someone defining the word motivation and that sentiment permeates the album. The tracks “Onion Rings” and “Coolin’ On The Lakeshore” are manifestations of his zeal for representing his hometown; Chicago seems to reside in the spaces between his exhortations and the songs’ plastic drum loops.
The stars align on “Thoughts Take Flight,” as Ann Arbor duo Binary Star team up with O Type Star to mete out their trademark protest-tinged rhymes. “Still Consummate,” the No I.D.-handled album highlight, functions like Baraka’s manifesto as he muses on his career’s trajectory over a misty keyboard riff.
Later Baraka meanders, as his earnest lyrics become repetitive and his poetic flow drains. One track, “WTTW (Word to the Wise),” exemplifies this and other issues with many of the songs on this release. He spits a few lines like “Tasted defeat yet maintained optimism, enthusiasm/to block this chasm I gots to cross” and “I’m working on these urban social economic math problems/of which the rap game is a microcosm.” Then, Baraka’s penchant for uplifting, socially aware rhyme-saying veers off-course when he delivers a phrase like, “If life’s a bitch/I mack her down with her sexy ass,” within a few bars of the others, exposing a deeper, Thelma and Louise over the cliff-sized chasm between the intention to educate and a propensity towards regressive sexism, of which he isn’t alone.
The album also features production by Hi-Tek, Vector Sigma, Maker and Baraka, which range in sort from pop-oriented instrumentals (“What Moves You”) to moody, skittering beats, to decade-old beats encumbered by lax mixing and too much overdubbing. At eighteen tracks it’s longer than it should be, but Baraka himself admits that the album should have been released years ago and that it is essentially a hodgepodge of material. In the end, Driving Songs Volume One: An Alternate Route is a journey over the two-stepped pavements of the Second City and of O Type Star’s long, multi-faceted career, one that echoes his name and is a rarity in the galaxy of hip-hop.