Monday night in front of a small gathering of hand-picked compatriots and friends, The Niceguys allowed their recording home of Wire Road Studios to turn into an open house. The multi-million dollar recording palace rolled out its carpet complete with television sets, dining areas and a patio just for the Houston foursome who just repeated as Houston Press Music Award winner for "Best Rap Group."
"This feels like our real debut album," said resident Niceguys producer Free, clad in his usual high socks and shorts. "We want people to keep guessing how the album sounds to them."
The night was for James Kelley, the group's much-publicized EP turned full-fledged sophomore album and for the man himself who, as inconspicuous as he is, relishes the fact that his inherited family of a kid from New York City, two from Dallas and Beaumont, and a resident Chopstar came together and created synergy under his roof.
After being welcomed in personally by Free and helped to plenty of finger food of Italian sausage rolls, barbecue wings and other tasty pleasantries, the school of fish who had heard only brief singles from JK were huddled into the main sound room.
Playful jokers and serious musicians all in the same frame, the session was primarily handled by Yves, the group's emcee and most notable face, considering his voice is the prevalent one on the majority of the tracks. He cracked jokes, remarked on how the first time Free got drunk wound up becoming a single of its own, how two guest features asked to pay but he turned them down (kidding), how he makes constant "NYC but I'm in Houston" references and more, truly in a purely anecdotal mood throughout.
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Some interesting quirks that separate James Kelley from The Show:
It's Darker: From the opening rattle that is "War Eagle" on to "Magick," the crew refuses to let their foot off of the neck of the listener. Spaced-out and expansive, Cristolph and Free have obviously taken their production cues from the soundtracks and soundscapes that litter every other form of media not restricted to rap.
True, Free's love for boom bap and easy to catch beat-boxing moments are still there, but he and Cristolph have been sharing a batch of drugs you can't even describe to craft these tracks. There is no album from Houston sounding like this, not as luxurious or grimy and not as stacked.
It's almost as if they played reverse Jenga with every track, even those taken from when the group still called the Moody Towers at UH their home and built upon them for this exact album.
"War Eagle" is like taking Auburn's fight song and giving it a Molly, a bottle of Jagermeister and telling it to go out and win one. "Ain't Life Grand" came with an anecdote from Yves about the song being created around a track Cristolph gave him on 4/20 with sneaky 808s and floor-rattling vibes and this was sequenced before "Ari Gold."
Slim Thug and Bun B Make Cameos: Yes, JK actually has rap features. Which also means, someone actually found a way to wrestle control from Yves on the microphone.
Not saying that's a terrible thing, because in all honesty he's one of the best in Houston if not one of the more underrated rappers in the country. For his lone production credit on the album, DJ Candlestick gives us his best Pharrell circa 2007, using heavy percussions to reel Thugga and newcomer Melanie in on "Married To The Mob."
If you ever wanted a sense of how that Skateboard P/Thug Boss partnership would have worked in 2012, here's your evidence. Also, the hardhittingslapyourgoddamnface remix to "Ari Gold" is here with Bun B. I'd still argue that this is the Trill OG's best verse of 2012 in a year where he's delivered plenty good ones.
Concepts, Concepts, Concepts: Hazy Ray puts their two cents in on "Thinkin Big" which feels like New Orleans jazz decided to wash itself in the ambition and drive of NYC, "Right Hook" lists off some of the greatest righties in boxing history, and "Never End" is Yves most personal relationship record.
If "Things Ain't The Same" was radio-ready from the chorus, "Never End" sprawls out with Nick Greer behind the piano keys playing Kelley's favorite chords to the right pitch. Each section of tracks in four-piece blocks gets separated by "Interludes" by Free, calming elevator music that sometimes may mistake itself for leftovers from Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE release.
The album's spontaneous highlight may not even truly make the album. Once Yves finished telling stories and setting up every single song with an anecdote to be met with laughs and twirled with remembrance from the other Niceguys, Cristolph pulled out his iPad and played a low-fi creation entitled "1996."
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It's part drunken freestyle, part ode to the Southside sessions where a beat would play and the best lines to elicit the loudest response were the benchmark. Two casual flips of Kool & the Gang's "Summer Madness" and Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit" twist together to give Cristolph and Yves room to breathe and be completely enduring to one another.
James Kelley drops for public release on September 11 and if "Excelseior," the self-described soundtrack of Bane breaking Batman's back in The Dark Knight Rises, is its conclusion, The Niceguys will have solidified themselves as not only great hosts but musicians. Especially ones who know how to pick out good Jack Daniel's and wings.