“This is boxcutter business, blade in the hand/I’m pulling rank on you motherfuckers, chain of command,” snarls Vinnie Paz on “Crime Wave Tehran,” the opening track to his latest album, “As Above, So Below.” Paz, the former frontman for the seminal Philadelphia horrorcore rap group Jedi Mind Tricks, has amassed an impressive solo career, with 5 full length albums under his belt. His unique blend of conspiracy theory infused over-the-top gristle, perfected in his years with JMT, is on full display for this 2020 release, dropped on Valentine’s Day. (The fact that an album so dedicated to violence and gore was released on a holiday ostensibly devoted to love had to be intentional.)
“As Above, So Below” kicks off with a Giallo Point produced track that lets Paz flex his lyrical chops, counterpointed by a fuzzed-up hook by Chinaski Black. It’s a perfect track to kick off the album, and the minimal production makes the lyrics the foundation of the song. In Paz’s past efforts, occasionally the production would overshadow the actual content, but he seems to have struck the ideal balance with “Tehran Crime Wave.”
A downtempo Stu Bangas (often known for his collaborations with fellow East Coast horrorcore rapper Ill Bill) does production for the next track, “Scorched Earth.” Again, Paz’s extreme brand of horrorcore is showcased, with lines like “That’s the sound of the machete chop/Beat a motherfucker till his eye end up like Fetty Wap.” Say what you will about socially conscious rappers, or rap groups intent on adhering to a political movement, but sometimes, East Coast gangster rap, in all its political incorrectness and unapologetic gore, is exactly what I need to get through the day.
The diversity of tracks on this album is laudable, showing that Paz isn’t a one-trick pony. Hardcore curb-stomp bangers (“I Am The Chaos,” “Sicilian Bull,” and “Mock Up On Mu”) share space with more introspective ballads about the dangers of street violence (“Mahubay Gardens,” with an incredible guest spot by Block McCloud), invocations of Allah and Islamic culture (Paz is a born-again Muslim), and even back-and-forth love (???) songs (“Ankle Bracelets,” featuring Queen Herawin on the hook section, holding her own masterfully.)
This speaks to the quality of the guest spots on this album. Paz shares space on his tracks with a multitude of talented artists, including Block McCloud, who provides two amazing hooks for two songs, counterpointing Paz’s rougher voice with his butter-smooth tones, even when crooning lines like “The only thing I know for sure is that we’re gonna die.” Queen Herawin, of the New York rap group Juggaknots, spits angry verses on “Ankle Bracelets,” in a 21st century version of the classic struggle about whether or not to commit to a relationship.
Finally, my personal favorite on the album, Vast Aire’s signature growl rounds out “Doomsday Machine,” a bass-heavy track with a repeating keyboard riff. The former Cannibal Ox frontman references Marvel (“Once I reveal myself, it’ll start the Secret War”), Star Wars (“It’s Vast Aire, the Sith Lord”), James Fenimore Cooper (“This ain’t a Christmas stocking/It’s the Last Mohican, that keeps the burner in his moccasins”), and even his own collaboration with Paz (“The mind trick of a cannibal/I’m like Hannibal, having dinner with the doctor at a festival”). It’s a cool piece of self-referential callout, from one of my all-time favorite rappers, that really bumped the album up a slot for me.
With “As Above, So Below”, Vinnie Paz proves he’s still an undisputed master of hardcore gangster rap. Even without the dream team of Jedi Mind Tricks, Paz as a solo act is both fun to listen to, and a legitimately skilled artist. Over-the-top theatricality, pounding beats from a diverse array of producers, and incredible guest spots from a wide range of rappers both known and unknown makes “As Above, So Below” a worthy contender for one of 2020’s best albums so far. Vinnie, as someone who’s eaten entirely too many cheesesteaks and run to the top of the Rocky steps, you’ve done Philadelphia proud with this latest effort. I’m giving this a 9/10, and I’m hoping for some more solid tracks this year.