You’d be hard-pressed to find a soul in Central Florida who doesn’t know what embattled suburb Pine Hills is about: Ravaged by gentrification, “Crime Hills” is often discussed in the same sentence as “annexation” by City Beautiful officials who would rather not deal with their crime-ridden problem child. Classic rap albums are bred from similar surroundings (New York’s 1980s criminal mayhem and its Queensbridge-Hollis-Long Island products single-handedly brought hip-hop into the mainstream) so it’s surprising to hear the Hills’ longtime grinder Uniq’s debut so stripped of personality, environment and risk.
Album opener “Fire” is a standard trunk-rattler, but Uniq delivers it with urgent giddiness – to hear local terms like “4-0-7” and “Bokey 11” repped with chest-thumping pride is still a weird experience – and “Play the Wall” works through the sheer bombastic will of Rajin Latchman and David Piere’s Swizz-istic keyboards. Too often, however, the ultra-polished sound from the eight credited producers swallows Uniq’s already diluted message. Guest vocalists including Tahir of Dead Prez jump all over this thing, enabling heavy slogan shouts and posture drops. Entire tracks are built from tired phrases like “can’t fade me” and “what you know about it?” – which is unfortunate since Uniq clearly has a story to tell (or so can faintly be made out in the background). The gifted MC, who appeared in then-hip-hop bible the Source over a decade ago, succeeds in mythologizing Pine Hills as a territorial battleground (“See, I walk these streets called ‘Survivory’/If you from the Hills, nigga, don’t collide with me”). But in trying to hit all the bases that make up today’s Billboard Hot 100 – a sex-jam here, a Caribbean-flavored high-life boast there – the real Hiram Bryant has been stripped of any regionally-definable sound and refurbished with broad ‘lovable gangsta’ brushstrokes.
The Definition’s sound, then, is not that of an original arrival but of desperate marketing ploys, and it’s nothing short of stunning that Uniq spent all that time in the waiting line only to be choked out of existence by Casio-dabblers and pencil-pushers. Timeless hip-hop is often created from the rubble of cities long given up on, but unless you’re telling the story from ground level, you’re just floating above it in a news chopper, and we have plenty of that already.