Black Sheep — MCs Dres and Mista Lawnge — were one of the most memorable and important acts of the '90s hip-hop renaissance; "The Choice Is Yours," from their classic debut, A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing (1991), remains a staple in every hip-hop DJ's record crate. Fast forward to 2006 and Black Sheep, now consisting of Dres working alone, have a digital-only release that's reminiscent of their classic debut.
8WM/Novakane opens with the hilarious, nightmare-themed intro "U Mean I Don't," a deliberate echo of the first album's "U Mean I'm Not." Here, Dres flips a Southern track and mocks the current state of hip-hop lyricism by breaking down everything he could possibly pimp, including teachers, substitutes, Viacom, fat girls and holidays, before waking up and realizing that he doesn't actually have a hot record out after all. It's followed by "Grew Up," a straightforward drum-and-piano-loop with Dres spewing intelligent street slang about growing up fast in the hood without trips to the diamond district, selling drugs or trying to make bail.
Dres rarely got personal on previous Black Sheep albums, but he does on "Be Careful," a beautiful tune inspired by his grandmother. He gets crafty on "Hey," forming fragmented bars with heavy alliteration ("Gathering green on granite/Present powerful pinpoint poems to please the planet"), and the raunchy "8WM," which stands for "Women, with women, with weed, with wine, with me." No Black Sheep album would be complete without heavy horn samples, amply displayed on "Whodat?" and "B-Boys Anthem," two of the album's strongest songs. And there's a new maturity in Dres 'once-comical image, especially on "Novakane." Dropping his views on the state of hip-hop in 2006, he comes across as a wise elder rather than a disgruntled veteran, offering a big-picture view without becoming overly preachy.
The album does suffer slightly from occasional formulaic R&B hooks, like "Everyday" and "Wonder"; it could also have used a boost from a good old-fashioned posse cut. But 8WM/Novakane is refreshing: solid production, clever wordplay, positive messages and no blatant attempts for mainstream recognition. Maybe the best thing about the album is that nobody really saw it coming. Rather than being an over-hyped (and almost inevitably disappointing) comeback, it's just the same group that dropped classics like "Strobelite Honey," "Flavor of the Month" and "Similak Child," and that they're still nimbly walking the fine line between underground and mainstream. Hey, fellas — no more 10-year disappearing acts, please.