There are two points to consider when listening to this album. (a) Req is infamous for two things. His unconventional and pioneering approach to spray can art and very average hip-hop production. (b) Hip-hop is one of the only genres in which the experiments of the underground don’t coax the mainstream to catch up. In fact the reverse is true. The past few years have seen NERD, Missy and the Ummah leg it off with new ways to embody the same style, while, all too often, the ones who “keep-it-real” are left tucking the fat laces into their shell-toes, as they cry over the lost genius of Skooly D and the Incredible Bongo Band. In his previous releases Req has fallen, almost exclusively, into the latter camp. It’s a good job then that “Sketchbook” sees him get out of those wet clothes and into the sensuous, but slightly grubby negligee, that should perhaps be (and certainly will be for the purposes of this review) known as organica.
This record seethes with beauty. From the glorious, creaking, asthma-strings of “Love Ache” to the batty swamp-synth arpegiation of “Symbolic 3” Req has pinned down tones that sound like trees growing and old-men’s skin changing texture. At it’s high points the biotic inventiveness sweeps modern music away, making you think that this maybe would be modern-pop had Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis been into the sound of the wind and banging old logs together, rather than blues and country and little girls.
That is why it is such a shame that despite these rigourous strengths, Req’s Wild-Style thumb marks are all over these prints. “Sketchbook” is a schizo-letdown. Though the beats are charming in a childish-meanderings-of-a-teen-drummer-with-no-elbows-and-flabby-wrists way (rather than the fat-back breaks of Clyde Stubblefield) it’s clear that the intimate, more organic sounds are often compromised by "old-skool" tendancies.
As a hip-hop record this doesn’t really work, but because it is a hip-hop record, it can’t work as “organica” either. It does the strange trick of completely out-shining itself. In places, this is one of the strangest, most-glowing ambient records to come out of Warp recently. That’s quite a feat. And no-one expected it to come from a long time friend and influence of Fat Boy Slim. It’s just a shame that it couldn’t decide what it was. That’s the difference between the creation of a potentially unsappable new pigeonhole, and just another instrumental production showcase for hip-hop’s home guard. That's why this not bad record is more of a tragedy than any complete pile of shit to come from your Eastpak-ed, Mecca-wearing mate's 1210's and 4-track set up. Because, in itself, it's a waste. And no one likes waste.
4Didz Hammond's Score