Halfby’s The Island Of Curiosity was one of 2010’s most pleasant surprises, the Kyoto producer releasing an album with a beach theme in a year when it seemed like everyone was making a beeline to the coast. Halfby, though, wasn’t just retweeting musical themes, but rather finding a proper home for his sound. After years of sample-heavy songs that could often be extremely grating, he finally found a way to be chilled out without abandoning his manic approach to music making. It landed in my personal Japanese top ten, and a year later I would stick by it for sure.
This year’s Leaders Of The New School, released in November, attempted another shift in theme. As evidenced by the name of the LP – that was the same name of the early 90’s Long Island rap crew Busta’ Rhymes started off in – Halfby does the college-freshman thing of wanting to go “old skool hip-hop.” In theory this seems like a great idea – Halfby loves sampling, and isn’t that what a lot of “old skool” hip-hop is all about? – yet the final results feel sloppy, unfocused. On the intro track, a woman’s voice declares Halfby’s latest as “fresh wild fly bold and solid music” that is a “journey into sound” that marks the “return of the hip-hop freaks.” As you can guess, rarely does New School deliver on any of these boasts.
It’s not a total disaster, as lead single “Tommy Boy” and its hip-hop house party get together vibe remains a fun bit of production, and the last two tracks find Halfby turning back to his old ways and closes New School on a strong note. Yet the majority of this “journey into sound” is into rehashed noises Schoolly D wouldn’t tread near. Two songs here blatantly imitate Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor” while another aims to be a Top 40 reggaeton jam, all three of which don’t sound all that impressive. “New Message For School” pulls up an annoying sample about antique shops to base the whole wobbly tune around. The “old skool” angle barely gets touched, two songs either putting together sample-based raps (inaccurately named “Queen Of Rap”) while another song enlists some guy who sounds like eight-rate Q-Tip rapping for Reading Rainbow.
It is quite telling that the best song here is “A Morning Dew,” which came out late in 2010 for some clothing stores new ad. It sounds like an Island holdover, and on New School this sounds like a welcome escape…albeit one that sounds totally out of place here. I’m all for artists shifting directions, but sometimes it’s best to not abandon the plan.