The first question that Eslam Jawaad’s Debut album, The Mammoth Tusk, might raise is “what the hell does a mammoth tusk have to do with a rap album?”. The west-coast-mid-90’s sounding title track explains just this and illustrates the story behind the album and the man. According to the former Lebanese mafia affiliate turned rapper, the Russian mafia sold a Siberian mammoth tusk to a businessman in Dubai, who later on tried to sell it to a Syrian group which contacted Jawaad to dispose of it through the Lebanese mob. Eventually Jawaad, the middle guy who spent month setting up the deal, got cot off. And with that he apparently decided to move on to a different course and perused his music as a career. But how accurate is this story? Well, I guess we just have to take Eslam’s word for it.
With that out of the way, I should stress that the story that inspired the track and the album is not the most impressive part of the album. No sir! Jawaad’s surprising affiliations (with artists, not the Lebanese mafia) and the songs that are crowned with music house hold names like The Wu Tang Clan’s GZA and RZA, Damon Albarn from Blur and cyber-group Gorillaz, are enough to turn some tracks into instant hits, and even instant classics. Now add to that a talented Lebanese Syrian rapper and you have a debut album that can be viewed as a promise of a rapper bound for greatness.
The album opens with an appropriately danceable club song that shows exactly how interesting it can get when you get your hands on great music from around the world. The song was made into a comic book styled video that reminds us of Eminem’s Without Me. The song combines Middle Eastern melodies and some string hits that sound Arabian to the western ears and South Asian to Arabic ears. At the end of the video Jawaad is seen holding a sign that says “Told you it was hot. Buy my album”. Judging from this song alone, that’s exactly what anybody who saw the video would have expected. But the album as a whole is a little too disjointed, the highlights are great but the other parts are far from being 2009’s greatest hits.
Star spangled banner is a clever booty song that compares certain feminine characteristics with those of American states. The slow Jazzy instrumentals used on this track, the high-pitched trombone, and the nasal tone of Jawaad all help portrait a hilarious image of a perverted semi-intoxicated man spitting rhymes about a woman’s booty. Some lines in this track, like “I pledge allegiance to your ass”, should spawn some laughter.
Tickle My Pickle, like other tracks on the album, such as Trick is not too exciting. The domestic violence themed song that goes on with a seemingly sarcastic take is hardly the best song on the album. And the same goes to Leave it Alone, and Criminuhl. These aren’t bad songs. There are NO bad songs on this album, but there are songs that don’t leave a mark, and that feeling is enhanced by the contrast created by the highlights of this album compared with the less than perfect tracks.
The old-Skool styled Rewind DJ, on which Jawaad collaborates with no less than De La Soul, is an instant classic. The late (and great) Aaliyah’s vocals from “Try Again” are like the cherry on top of this cream pie. But you need to remember that a gourmet pie will never be fast food. You can sit back, relax and enjoy this track, but you wouldn’t enjoy shaking your arse to it as much. But seriously, who needs that? I’ll take a slow, and a bit too long, classic over the ass shaker any day.
The fast paced short running Babba’s Shotgun is something special. The strong drums go well with the deep voiced rapper’s calm yet aggressive style, and the sweet guitar hits suit the somewhat nostalgic tone of the track. The political commentary on this track (resisting the French colonial police in Jawaad’s grandfather's days) is applicable to the situation in some Arab countries today.
So Real is quite simply a great song. (Is it me or is every track that starts with rain sounds bound to be great?) The song features production by legendary Wu tang’s RZA, an introduction by Wu Tang’s GZA, and Shadia Mansour for the chorus. For those who have a thing for Shadia Mansour, like I do, this song, and this album is a real treat. This song is probably my personal favorite from this album. I say “probably” because I keep changing my mind since there are a number of great songs to choose from.
The Gorillaz inspired Alarm Chord with Damon Albarn is one of the crown jewels of this album, and is an answer for those curious about Jawaad’s abilities in his native tongue, and for those looking for some contrast and variety in musical style. The song is apparently inspired by Damon’s Gorillaz alter ego. It is different from anything else heard on this album, and anything else we’ve heard in Arabic rap for that matter. Jawaad’s flow on this track, especially in the opening verse, is beautifully melodized. With this song added to the mix, in addition the aforementioned So Real and Rewind DJ, choosing a favorite track gets really hard.
The bonus track, Beirut, is the second one in Arabic. It’s actually a song I’ve heard before on Youtube, while looking for videos of Shadia Mansour. It’s a song that I already know and like. But speaking of Shadia, I do miss her rap verse from the version I’ve heard before. I’m not entirely sure whether that verse was originally a part of the song at some point, but that’s the way it seems. And if that’s the case, the pre-edited version sounded better. Either way, the song is good. It could have been a great song if it weren’t for the “Madeannett Beirut” bridge before the second verse where Shadia’s verse used to be. And I could do without the intro. I still see the song as a whole as a good and solid one.
With that I shall finish and sum it up and add that the album is a great debut album. Eslam Jawaad is one of the greatest Arab rappers, and has reached levels that Arabic rap in general is yet to reach. Some songs are not the catchiest songs you’ll hear in 2009, but some songs, which I’ll list, are just bloody awesome.
Editor’s picks: Pivot Widdit, Rewind DJ, Babba’s Shotgun, So Real, Alarm Chord and Beirut.
Sammy Hourani for Arabic Hip Hop Headz