Having It Both Ways 

Odd-couple Kontrast emerge with a local hip-hop ideal.

It's a couple of months late, but consider this a valentine: Kontrast's "13's" isn't just the best local record of the year but might be my favorite song of the year, period.

The fourth track on the group's recently released debut album, 1.5 -- a probable reference to following on the heels of local hip-hop collective Iron Mic Coalition's debut, The First Edition; Kontrast is one of the four acts that make up the Iron Mic -- "13's" is a perfect hip-hop single. Vocals, backing track, lyric, theme, structure, flourishes: Every element is flawless if not inspired.

An anthem for those of us (i.e., most of us) riding around "on those regular-sized tires," it's a response to the trend of hip-hop songs about expensive, gaudy car rims (T.I.'s "24's," Three-Six Mafia's "Ridin' on Spinners"). But what's so great about it is that the song's criticism of hip-hop materialism never sounds pedantic or superior.

The track opens with a vocal sample from LL Cool J's "The Boomin' System" ("Kick a little sumpin' for them cars that be bumpin'!") which leads into a bluesy backing track that loops throughout the song if not happily to infinity.

After a brief spoken-word set-up, MC Jason Harris takes the first verse, opening with a crucial, scene-setting line: "Rollin' down Park Avenue bumping bass/Got that Eightball & MJG Comin' Out Hard in my system gettin' played." This not only gives the song a tangible local dimension, it declares a solidarity with a local rap heritage you might (falsely) assume the group is opposed to.

You can practically see Harris wiping his brow on a hot summer day as he steers his beater down Park: no AC, overdue oil change, leaky radiator, ragged wipers, busted headlights. But this is no lament, just the way things are.

Rapper/producer partner Empee mirrors Harris on the next verse but ups the intensity with a more animated flow. You can picture him headed from the opposite direction, cracked windshield, scratched paint job, CDs scattered under the seat, dust covering the dashboard.

On the next verse, Harris and Empee seem to be inhabiting the same space, Harris summing things up ("I got better things to do with my cash/I need it for repairs and these days almost certainly for gas") and Empee striking a defiant note. Then they let the track take a victory lap before the fade.

In four minutes and 38 seconds, it establishes a local hip-hop ideal, the kind of third-way route between gangsta rap and indie tsk-tsking that's made the likes of Outkast and Kanye West into major stars. And if nothing else on 1.5 comes close to it, that doesn't mean the rest of the album doesn't have its pleasures.

Kontrast, as the name indicates, is an odd-couple pairing (joined by DJ Capital A). Sinbad lookalike Empee is a towering, megaphone-voiced MC. He's got a propensity for comical rhymes about drugs and alcohol. (He got local commercial radio play with the solo track "Drunk on the Mic.") Kobe Bryant-lookalike Harris is an ex-athlete (he once set a Tennessee high school football record for most touchdown passes in a game) with a scratchier, more conversational style. As befits a current high school teacher/coach (unavoidably cute lyric from "13's": "Reminiscing about this week I had in school/Substitute teaching and these dudes out here rapping with their crews/They didn't know Mr. Harris had flow/So I had to go/And spit a little just to let 'em know"), he espouses clean living.

And this, um, contrast, is plumbed for a lot of the record's other high points. On "High," Empee's weed-and-women ethos is juxtaposed with Harris' natural high. ("Behind my back they call me lame, but never to my face," the ex-football star muses).

Better is "Jimmy Haywood featuring Lionel McAfee," which introduces fictional alter egos that fit the duo's personalities: Empee's Haywood is a flamboyant pimp/player figure but still grounded in reality. But, like Harris himself, this old dog has a few old tricks he'd like to "teach and preach" to the "whippersnappers": "Don't get involved with the drama and hood wars/Thankful for the blessings I got from the good Lord." n

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