When host Sway Calloway asked the members of Slaughterhouse where they ranked among current rap crews, the question led to five full seconds of dead air last night in Sirius/XM's studios in midtown Manhattan.
Label head Eminem, immediately to Sway's left, shifted under a gray hoodie; Joe Budden looked off into the distance, his eyebrows arching toward one another. Royce da 5'9", the quiet straight-shooter of the group, finally broke the silence. "You're asking us what we think? We think what we think." Joell Ortiz added, "We know what we know."
Their major-label debut Welcome to: Our House – previewed last night for a small collection of journalists – arrives overloaded with rappy-raps, the kind you press pause-rewind-play more than once to absorb. Verses come packed with alliteral somersaults and tongue-twisting backbends, each line complicated by double-entendres, left-field references and extended jokes. (Crooked I, on "Frathouse": "Her pussy hotter than a chili pepper/ I tell her give it away, give it away now.") Last night, Eminem referred to the group's sweatbox sound as "technical rap" and "competitive rap," understatements both. It's not a question of whether Slaughterhouse can rap; they clearly can. The bigger issue is whether or not their definition of "rap" still matters.
That is the group's mission and, synonymously, the prevailing theme of the album. "I just wanna be the illest MC," Budden raps on opener "Our House." It's a funny goal in an age of Black Eyed Peas and Chief Keef, where craft and purity is overshadowed by crossover and insta-fame. It's a preoccupation that echos over and over again, its source indiscriminate: Royce name-checks rappers' rappers Canibus, Jakk Frost and Ras Kass in the first song, compiling a list of overlooked torchbearers. In an interlude midway through the album, Joe makes a point of saying, "We can't fail. If we do, it's back to the drawing board." Later, on "Rescue Me," Crook takes it even further: "If I die, tell my son I tried . . . to bring my music to the people." The struggle to keep this kind of hip-hop alive becomes something like a World Wildlife Federation mailer, where it's as important to save lyricism in hip-hop as it is to save pandas in the wild.
It's too bad that for all the emphasis on what they're saying, it's often hard to hear them: The vocals barely manage to clamber above production that's almost permanently loud and busy. On "Get Up," especially, it feels like a Rubik's Cube of sounds grinding and cranking this way and that, with more drums, more guitars, more riffs and fills and effects than necessary. It's as if a middle-school band got tossed in an earthquake and an amplifier was sent to save them. Swizz Beatz, contributing the beat to "Throw It Away," sounds restrained by comparison, as does the single "My Life," cynical as it is, in which Cee Lo goes into high-kick camp mode while redoing "Rhythm of the Night" by Corona.
With each rapper pushing one another through the album, verse by verse, the highs are impossibly high; the lows, unbelievably low. It gets no darker than "Goodbye," released last night. It's a pounding, ethereal dirge in which Joe Budden sheds light on the twins he (unfortunately and rather publicly) lost after then-girlfriend Esther Baxter had a miscarriage. Crook says, "I used to wonder what it would be like to speak to Pops as an adult," the closest equivalent being his uncle, who died of cancer. While playing the song last night, Joe turned his chair away and put his head in his hands. Eminem rapped Joell's verse to himself, looking downward while mouthing, "Hey Granny, I was fifth row at the Grammys." (The songs "Die" and "Coffin" – which features Busta Rhymes – aren't nearly as gloomy.)
"Throw That" offers a nice counterweight, though it feels like Slaughterhouse is barely on the song. It's Eminem's show, a return to form, with T-Minus providing the soundtrack from a carnival ride. It's a palette cleanser, proof that lyricism can be fun (or gleefully misogynistic, as Eminem taunts, "With those child-bearing hips and lips, I'll throw this dick on you, girl"). Later, on "Flip a Bird," the group goes full-throttle at gossip sites, with Bossip and WorldStar HipHop getting name-checked before Crooked I raps, "DJ Vlad was glad bullets went into me," saying Vlad's traffic went up as a result.