Apollo Brown / Joell Ortiz: Mona Lisa Album Review
It takes extreme dedication to the old school to keep your references on point. No self-respecting b-boy, after all, raps about data ownership, the Tide Pod Challenge, or “The Conners.” Certainly not Joell Ortiz, who’s less a golden-age hip-hop revivalist and more a hardened industry survivor. There’s a moment on “Decisions” when, in an attempt to assert his lack of interest in keeping up with fashionable young stars, Ortiz name-drops Lil Wayne. No disrespect to Weezy, who just put out his most vital album in years, but that the reference is probably about a decade out of date tells you more about Ortiz than the lyric itself. He goes on to advise listeners on where to buy their CDs, like a rap Jasper Beardly. Street-corner rhymes and grubby beats in 2018? What a time to be alive.
Ortiz’ career so far has been nomadic. That his time on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment failed to produce an album is no disgrace—the list of rappers who have struggled to hold the good doctor’s attention is long and distinguished (Rakim, for one). He hooked up with Joe Budden, Royce de 5’9”, and Kxng Crooked to form Slaughterhouse in the collective hope that the spectacle of four beaten-down rappers would be enough to gain some kind of traction. But Mona Lisa feels like Ortiz is done chasing ghosts. Dedicated to the core tenets of East Coast hip-hop, the album finds the Brooklynite incredibly content to bask in a sound as classic as the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. At just 38, he’s only a couple years older than Westside Gunn, one of the contemporary stars of cracked New York rap. Yet on Mona Lisa, Ortiz revels in his elder-statesman status. It’s as comfortable a fit as a pair of silk pajamas two sizes too big.
To achieve this synthesis, you need a producer smothered in the original myths of hip-hop—a chop-up-the-soul symphonist who worships at the altar of DJ Premier. Enter Apollo Brown, the Detroit slinger of throwback boom-bap. Like Ortiz, Brown doesn’t pardon his old-fashioned proclivities, blazing a production style built on dusty samples, quick-hand scratches, and steady drum loops. With a batch of beats that sound like they came off the same production line as No Question, the equally solid joint record he put out this year with Locksmith, Mona Lisa won’t win awards for ingenuity or surprises, but it’s rarely hard on the ear.
Ortiz’s affinity for Brown and this project is confirmed by how strikingly personal his writing is. The whimsical beat of “Reflection” finds Ortiz staring out onto the Hudson River, picturing the rap riches he might have achieved before peacefully reconciling with the career he has had (“My fans don’t expect me on the charts/Guess when you gifted, sometimes you rap yourself into a box”). Sometimes he uses his seniority to spin wisdom like a modern version of Ossie Davis’ Da Mayor from Do the Right Thing. After shouting out his Brooklyn roots on “Grace of God,” he unleashes a reminder of what the borough’s residents have dealt with with since time immemorial: “The police, they did the same shit y’all seeing now, ‘cept camera phones wasn’t out.”
Not everything is as sweet. Ortiz sounds oafish on “Cocaine Fingertips,” which, among other things, has a vile double entendre that refers to cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Turns out he’s more Gilbert Gottfried than Action Bronson when it comes to oddball humor.
Mona Lisa has few such obvious flaws, yet the album can sometimes feel overly snug. A little more tension would have been welcome—the kind that fellow mature-minded New Yorkers like Roc Marciano and Ka lean towards with their warped orchestration, or the Alchemist, with his affinity for more psychedelic sounds. But it’s hard to grumble too much about an album that speaks the eternal truths of boom-bap with such nostalgic romance. More importantly, it shows us that a clear-minded Ortiz, with no interested in proving anything to you or me, is well worth keeping around.