After nearly a decade blazing the mixtape circuit, Strong Arm Steady appear poised to bring their brand of high octane boom-bap to a record store near you. The first of two SAS albums schedule to drop in 2010, In Search of Stoney Jackson finds Cali stalwarts Krondon, Phil Da Agony and Mitchy Slick in fine form, letting fly a flurry of free wheeling rhymes over a diverse tapestry of beats courtesy of Madlib, and spotlighting some of the finest MCs currently roaming the underground via a parade of stand-out guest spots.

“Best of Times” opens the set sublimely with Madlib’s bass heavy beat and celestial strings propelling the contemplative rhymes along at a deliberate mid-tempo. The always rewind worthy Phonte of Little Brother anchors the track, providing both the hook and a poignantly timely closing verse. Planet Asia and Fashawn drop by to paint ominous word pictures over the moody thump of “Questions,” making the track a spooky standout. There’s plenty of levity as well, with Talib Kweli continuing his mastery of Madlib tracks on the braggadocio filled “Get It Started,” and Planet Asia again joining the crew in a playful ode to vegan women on the ironically titled “Chittlins and Pepsi.”

SAS succeed in bringing the open, free spirited energy of their live shows and mixtapes to Stoney Jackson, and that proves to be a bit of a double edged sword. While the stylistic range of Madlib’s beats and the dizzying flurry of guest spots keeps the dull moments few and far between, it also prevents the disc from truly forming an identity. All three MCs, particularly an energized Phil Da Agony, deliver more than their share of memorable verses, but they never quite take ownership of the record. It feels like most of the beats were selected to suite the guests, and since there are guests on nearly every track, the end result plays like a first rate Madlib mixtape hosted by Strong Arm Steady. Still, fans of SAS, Madlib, or vintage hip-hop in general will find more than enough heavy hitting beats and gensu-sharp rhymes to keep this album in rotation until Stoney Jackson is found.

-Jeff Harvey

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