- Rico James, Language of Spirits
(Man Bites Dog Records, CD, digital)
Prolific hip-hop producer Rico James is a fixture of the Burlington scene. He's always been blessed with a knack for networking, uniting artists and crews throughout New England. As cofounder of Equal Eyes Records, he put that talent to work building the most accomplished hip-hop label Vermont has ever seen. Since his amicable split with the imprint back in 2020, he remains as busy as ever.
His latest release, Language of Spirits, is a huge step up in an already distinguished career. James served as executive producer, gathering dozens of guest artists with carefully chosen beats. He also handled mixing, mastering and graphic design duties. The ambition alone is impressive, but what really makes the record a milestone is how confidently he pulls it all off.
Two years back, James dropped Bring a Friend, another album packed with guest features that celebrated both the local scene and the connections he had made in the worldwide rap underground. It was a fun ride but tonally scattered.
Language of Spirits hits much differently. It celebrates a very specific brand of '90s East Coast lyrical fitness. Not quite Soundbombing, not quite Tony Touch, this LP cuts much closer to DJ Premier's 1997 compilation New York Reality Check 101. It is relentlessly grimy, built around brooding, minor-key melodics and speaker-folding boom bap drums.
The monster opening cut establishes the tone. "Gold Medal Sh!t" features punch line kingpin Copywrite, New York City polymath Double A.B. and Boston breakout M-Dot. It's a testament to the artists' respect for James and each other that all these heavyweights bring their A games. That's true of all the artists on the 13 tracks: Everyone who steps up to the mic is hungry.
The best part of underground extravaganzas like Language of Spirits is the new names who swing through to steal the show. There are plenty of standout verses here, but NYC's Bobby J From Rockaway had me hitting rewind and checking the liner notes to figure out who he was. I was also impressed by Oklahoma oddball Dewey Binns, Rhode Island's Mopes and Virginia spitter BlackLiq, who deliver the goods with charisma and skills to spare.
There are some familiar local names in the mix, too. Northeast Kingdom transplant Iame decimates his solo cut "If I'm Being Honest." The Aztext reunite for a blistering, dusty workout on "Music Keeps Calling." And Boomslang's Sed One holds his own on "You Gotta Sleep" alongside Sleep Sinatra — no easy feat.
Released on up-and-coming Virginia label Man Bites Dog Records, Language of Spirits is a serious, professional-grade piece of work from a producer who is ready for bigger things. Getting traction in the rap game is famously difficult, but the clarity of purpose here — not to mention the top-notch roster of MCs — should help connect James with appreciative listeners around the world. This is a throwback that sounds brand-new.
Language of Spirits is available at manbitesdogrecs.bandcamp.com/music.