taking a listen

by Ryan Snyder

reviews of the moment

9th Wonder — The Wonder Years

North Carolina Hip-Hop Day saw one small town rapper claiming the Billboard throne and two of the most prominent figures in the state’s scene bouncing beats and rhymes off of each other over an officially buried hatchet. In other words, it was a good day. On one hand, Phonte Coleman enlisted former Little Brother associate 9th Wonder for beats on his solo debut Charity Starts at Home while making a more pointed acknowledgement by sampling the same Grandmaster Flash hook that was sampled in the Digable Planets’ track that became 9th Wonder’s namesake. On the other, 9th Wonder saves two of his best beats on his latest solo album for once and future friend. The Wonder Years is several years in the making, with a who’s-who of guests and is solo in theory only. The Winston-Salem-born producer enlisted emcees and vocalists from essentially every corner of hip-hop and R&B for one of the Big Three releases that comprised North Carolina Hip-Hop Day. Most of this diverse array of voices are under 9th’s wing on Jamla Records/It’s A Wonderful World Music Group, but then you see names like Warren G and Masta Killa when scrolling down the track listing and it becomes apparent that this could be a transcendent listening experience. It is, for the most part. 9th exercises great discretion in curating the right beats for the right voices, beginning with a cranked-up treatment of Diana Ross’s “Touch Me In the Morning” for rapper Khrysis’s loungey flow. His verses evoke the nostalgia of Little Brother’s own “Good Clothes” and paired with Phonte and Meridian’s “Band Practice,” the album opens with reminiscence that’s been an undercurrent in 9th’s signature sound. Warren G’s spot surprisingly shows a rapper who can flex beyond the roomy confines of G-funk, and Mac Miller is who we thought he was: a relatively weak emcee afraid to say anything substantial. The difficult assignments are handed to the best rappers. Blu and Sundown tackle the boom-bap of “Piranhas” with ease, and Murs and Kendrick Lamar step up to the bar set by Warren G. In the purest sense, The Wonder Years is hip hop. It’s not a party rocker at it’s core, but instead is a heady, considered contribution to the annals of hip-hop, not to mention of one 9th Wonder’s best albums.