When Los Angeles hip hop supergroup L.A. Symphony dropped their classic debut album, Composition #1, just over 15 years ago, a seismic shift was already taking place in hip hop. Following in the footsteps of De La Soul and The Pharcyde, the members of the Symph were at the forefront of a new pack of hip hop acts blurring the lines between underground and mainstream rap.
Two years later, the group had a record deal with Warner Bros. and was fresh out of the studio with tracks produced by the likes of will.i.am and Prince Paul. However, the album that promised to be their breakthrough, Call It What You Want, never saw the light of day.
Within three years, the group’s members dropped from eight to five, and after a smattering of indie releases, the band vanished after the appropriately titled Disappear Here in 2005. Various members of L.A. Symphony have continued releasing solo material in the time since (the most notable of which is Pigeon John), but for all intents and purposes, one of the most promising hip hop acts in recent memory was finished.
Until now. An album that literally no one expected, You Still on Earth? finds the core eight members (Uno Mas, CookBook, Sareem Poems, Flynn, Joey the Jerk, Pigeon John, bTwice, J-Beits) of L.A. Symphony reunited once more. Once you shake off the nostalgia trip, You Still on Earth? proves to be one of the best hip hop releases of 2014.
Perhaps what makes this release so refreshing, aside from the initial shock of hearing those eight distinct voices on tape together once more, is how pressure-free the project feels. For a group that spent most of its existence on the cusp of a mainstream explosion, the Symph’s music was riddled with stress and burden, save for their debut. With nothing to prove and no expectations to meet, You Still on Earth? feels free and unrestricted.
Opening track “Phoenix” finds the group effortlessly taking turns at the mic atop a beat of swirling synthesizers and crashing drums. When Flynn remarks, “And just like that, L.A. Symphony is back” on the track’s chorus, you can feel the collective smirk. There’s no weak link to be found here – everyone sounds on point, even after all this time.
Across the album’s 16 tracks there is no one thesis – topics range from past reflection to addiction to romantic love to general braggadocio. If you had to pick one underlying current that seems to course through the album, it would be one of defiance. Whether the feeling be directed at the “haters” or “non-believers,” there’s certainly an air of brashness. The whole record seems to ask, “Don’t you know who we are?”
Various members shine during moments of bravado, such as CookBook on “We Out There” as he drops the line, “If you a meth addict, then I’m a science teacher / Slinging crack music, we supply the ether”. Later, on the same track, Pigeon John rhymes, “In a minute, I’ma get up in it, record store tenant / They might as well rent it out to denounce it / And that’s me and my crew, God bless you / Like a hot shoe, mashing down Melrose in a John Deere”.
The album is full of both loud, in-your-face songs like the distortion-laced “Shut it Up” as well as more peaceful and reflective tracks like the beautiful “Nightfall”. The most sobering moment comes in the form of “Dope”, a track featuring J-Beits, bTwice and Pigeon John in which all three share a peek inside their struggle with addiction. On the second verse, bTwice spits, “And I ain’t leaving / Dopamine spike reveals the kingdom is alive and breathing / Unaware of my inherent freedom / Accelerated perception got me feeling like I did prior to conception / But the bubble pops and life is a pair of dice tossed / A glimpse of paradise lost”.
“My Lady” feels like an old school Symph track and features an insanely catchy hook, courtesy of Pigeon John, as the members show love to some special women in their lives. Closer “In L.A.” is a sick throwback track with a chill-inducing sample from “California Dreamin’”. On the song, the members reflect on the band’s beginnings, hopes and dreams. It’s a treat for all of the group’s longtime fans and a reminder that this collective possesses a ridiculous amount of talent from top to bottom.
There are a few swings and misses on the album, but they’re few and far between. “Another Level” sounds like an idea that seemed funny in the studio but falls flat on the record. “Space Boots” is odd minimalist track that isn’t bad, but just doesn’t quite fit in with its surroundings.
All in all, You Still on Earth? is everything that any fan of L.A. Symphony could hope for – not just a return, but a return in fine form. In fact, it’s so good that it makes you start wondering all over again about what could have been. But that’s impossible to say. What we do know is that L.A. Symphony has delivered a career’s worth of classic material, and then some. You Still on Earth? just adds to the legend.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.