The spirit of competition will always go down as something that seems to have been lost in the sauce when it comes to Hip Hop in the Internet age. In an era where eating off of rap is becoming more and more difficult, sharing the marquee with another artist isn’t always the most appetizing option on the table. It’s when two emcees disregard all of that and go in together on a project that Hip Hop fans should take note and see that the art can sometimes supersede the business and egos. That being said, Barrel Brothers has been a long time coming. After years of moving within the same New York rap circles and collaborating on records here and there, Skyzoo and Torae finally linked up for the oft-promised collaborative project. The similarities between the two Brooklyn emcees run deep; both have healthy discographies of very solid projects that exhibit a great ear for production (managing to enlist the likes of DJ Premier, 9th Wonder, Marco Polo and J Dilla on various projects) and an unwillingness to compromise on lyricism while still keeping the music fun and innovative. Barrel Brothers is the pudding you’ll find the proof in.
Skyzoo said on the A Dream Deferred project that Spike Lee was his hero and he’s definitely brought that onto the sound of this album as well with production that infuses a heavy jazz influence, from the lonely horn on “Intro” to the triumphant horns and plodding percussion on “Memorabilia.” For true music heads or production nerds, this is the kind of album that you actually want to get ahold of the liner notes for so that you can find all of the samples used. The chorus on “Tunnel Vision” makes a hot Digable Planets line into a hot song, using the familiar “we be to rap what key be to lock” quote almost robotically looped as the hook. It’s the sound on this record that pretty much sums up what Skyzoo and Torae bring to the table when you consider the very “now” overall feel of the track combined with the Digable Planets nod and the strong old school drums.
The Barrel Brothers seem to master the balance between making relevant music for the present and still staying rooted in a very Hip Hop sound with appreciation for the classics. On “4 Bar Friday,” Skyzoo and Torae trade off swift but effective four bar verses, bringing a competitive edge to the record that’s reminiscent of when Styles P and Jadakiss used to go bar for bar on a number of classic songs. At barely two and a half minutes, the only complaint is that the song is way too short. The soulful loops and deftly-handled scratching at the end of the record provided here by The Stuyvesants simply leave you wanting more, not to mention hoping Skyzoo and Torae return to this style of rhyming on at least one more record in the near future. It’s this short record where Torae spits lines like “So whoever wanna war, take twenty paces and draw / But better be Basquiat to the core” followed up directly with Skyzoo threatening to “pull your heart out your chest like Comme des Garçons,” a reference to the Japanese fashion label’s heart logo, which can be found emblazoned across the chest of their T-shirts.
In terms of guest appearances, though Sky and Tor hold their own with great competence, their carefully selected guests add and never subtract to the overall vibe. They’re working with artists they seem to actually have an organic chemistry with as opposed to whoever’s going to get their project the most attention. Sean Price and Guilty Simpson catch absolute wreck on “All In Together” over some serious boom-bap heat laid down by Black Milk. As is to be expected, the rap threats here are top shelf, with Guilty offering to “beat enamel off his teeth with the heater handle” and Sean P delivering an interesting barb directed at Hot 97’s soon-to-be-former program director Ebro Darden and his “majors vs. minors” concept (“A known major but I’m minor to Ebro / I’m touring all the time, what the fuck do he know”). On “Rediscover,” producer MarcNfinit dusts off a 1981 Main Ingredient jam (from their album I Only Have Eyes For You) to lay the dreamy backdrop for the Barrel Brothers’ team-up with the West Coast’s Blu, who steps in last to “spit a Picasso on ya console.” It’s frequent collaborator Sha Stimuli who appears on “Triangle Offense” who makes you wonder if the Barrel Brothers group should have been a trio, spitting a furious verse that doesn’t necessarily outshine his worthy rhyme partners, but adds another energy level to the track that’s strictly complementary.
Barrel Brothers is an excellent project that gives you 14 (15 including the iTunes and vinyl bonus) tracks of everything you want as a fan of true spitters, with no filler whatsoever. The tracks are diverse and textured enough to where every song is necessary. Granted, for the most part, Skyzoo and Torae are “just rapping,” but even that is an understatement when you consider the skills the two bring to the table at doing just that. Though the content rarely goes beyond the typical braggadocio rhetoric, it would be foolish to criticize Barrel Brothers for what it isn’t when it’s clear the two emcees had a great time with the record and made the album they wanted to. Pushing for extraneous content in the interest of added “depth” could force an emcee’s hand into making something inauthentic and it’s obvious that, given how long these two have been around making the music they want to make and getting the respect they deserve for it, authenticity is important to them. If you want thought-provoking content and distinctive concepts, it would serve you well to pick up either emcee’s solo catalogue, as you’ll find all of that and more. For Barrel Brothers, the duo wanted to bring the fans something they wanted from them, which was pure craftsmanship and emcees who aren’t afraid to get in the booth with another equally matched talent and shoot the gift, bringing the spirit of amicable competition back to the forefront with no frills.