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Up to No Good: Czarface’s Every Hero Needs a Villain

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While the stylings of West Coast, Midwest, and Southern hip-hop have taken quantum leaps forward in the past few years, East Coast boom-bap has mostly stagnated. Indeed, rap music’s foundational style has taken on a claustrophobic feeling. When you throw on a new boom-bap record, you can bet pretty safely on what you’re going to get: slightly jazzy instrumentation, straightforward analog-sampled drums, decent turntablism, lame choruses, some braggodocious verses, and so on. It’s all just become way too predictable.

What makes the rut the genre has mostly fallen into especially unfortunate is how vivid and expansive its classic works are. Illmatic puts you right in the middle of Queensbridge, with Nas as your Virgil to guide you through; Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt is a special screening of the most self-aware and multifaceted gangster movie never made; Biggie’s Ready To Die is a veritable epic that includes gritty storytelling, somber introspection, and well-deserved celebration; the Wu-Tang Clan’s group and solo discographies, meanwhile, give a glimpse into an absurdly entertaining alternate reality in which feudal China and Staten Island have collided.

Indeed, all things considered, the core members of the Wu — RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah — have done a remarkable job with consistently releasing records brimming with personality over the last twenty-plus years. Even looking past their excellent string of releases in the 90s, Wu-Tang still has plenty of quality projects to their name: Legend of the Liquid Sword, Fishscale, Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx… Pt. II, and Wu-Massacre, just to name a few. Note, though, that there’s a fairly sharp divide between these guys — the Wu-Tang Clan’s essential members whose impact on hip-hop is unquestionable — and the outfit’s lesser contributers, U-God, Cappadonna, and Masta Killa, whose output has been decent at best.

That leaves the last piece of the Wu puzzle (other than the late, great ODB), Inspectah Deck, who’s always just fallen short of greatness. Purely as an MC, Deck’s skill can’t be disputed; his verses on Wu-Tang’s “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Triumph” are two of the greatest in the history of rap, and he’s killed plenty more tracks besides. In spite of his evident bar-for-bar ability, however, Inspectah Deck has never put together a full album that’s registered much of an impact.

When INS teamed up with underground hip-hop duo 7L & Esoteric in 2013 to form the supergroup, Czarface, I can’t say that I eagerly awaited or even paid attention to the musical output that would follow. Producer 7L and rapper Esoteric are well-established and well-received underground mainstays, but their material has never caught my attention consistently. To expect three artists who have never put together a consistently good project separately to somehow pull one off collectively would be unrealistic. And alas, Czarface’s self-titled debut was also middling.

But every underdog has its day, I suppose, because the crew’s latest effort, Every Hero Needs a Villain, is pretty damn awesome.

Front to back, every second of Czarface’s sophomore album is filled with colorful attitude, technical mastery, and enthralling group dynamics, resulting in the most vibrant and (I’ll just say it) best traditionalist East Coast rap record in years.


An undeniable key to Every Hero Needs a Villain’s success is its loose conceptual aesthetic. As the record’s title and cover might imply, Deck, Esoteric, and 7L’s collaboration has an old-school comic book vibe to it, with Czarface being our anti-hero protagonist. This concept doesn’t just play out cosmetically, however, as soundbites from old superhero movies and TV, as well as some original audio made to sound like an old Saturday morning cartoon are employed frequently throughout the record. It may sound a little hokey (and maybe it is), but this theme is integral to giving the record its fun, vivacious identity.

These audio samples also serve as a nice complement to the verses they’re peppered between. To begin with, Inspectah Deck and Esoteric already have a knack for over-the-top and pop-culture-obsessed bars — with references to everything from sports to Star Wars — so it seems only fitting that a ridiculous, fake cartoon binds things together.

But don’t be concerned that there’s some sort of narrative to the album that you’ll have to pay attention to; these interludes are brief and don’t tell an overarching story. Much in the way Madlib reappropriated audio clips from other media to give some extra density and character to his collaborations with MF Doom and Freddie Gibbs, 7L’s samples are implemented with a light touch.

That leaves good old fashioned bars and beats to do the heavy lifting, which they do, and then some.

I suppose I could start by telling you about my initial reaction to the album. The first track, “Don the Armor,” is a short piece consisting of audio from what sounds like an old advertisement for some sort of superhero toy with a distorted beat playing at low volume in the background. It sounds like something that could have been on the first Czarface record, and thus I didn’t get my hopes up too much.

But that only made the first proper song, “Czartacus,” that much more of an surgical, hard-hitting ambush. The instrumental — a sprawl of overdrive-drenched guitars and bass — sounds like a vile creature that emerged from a New York City gutter. And over this monster INS and Esoteric drop some real gems. From Deck: “Watch your dude monster mash for a wad of cash / ironic how n****s garbage be talkin’ trash.” And Esoteric: “Rappers talking ‘bout how they livin’ in that studio / They’re talking about their one-room apartments.” But perhaps the best punchline of all goes to 7L, who switches the beat up on the fly to a parodic radio-rap instrumental when Esoteric takes a jab at mainstream MCs. So basically, if the intro doesn’t jolt you to your senses, this track will hit you with a few gigawatts.

The production and lyrics are grade-A all throughout the project, but there are a few moments where the group’s chemistry and energy levels go through the roof. On “Lumberjack Match,” Deck and Esoteric get caught up trading shit-talking verses at a feverish pace, though Esoteric gets the prize for best line with “you can call for help but you’ll be dead by 9-1.” 7L gives the track an appropriately propulsive beat driven by an arpeggiating prog rock guitar riff that grows especially grand once some impossibly quick scat-sung vocals arrive to match it, note for note.

Meanwhile, on the closer, “Good Villains Go Last,” the crew makes sure to whip up one hell of a coup-de-grace. As soon as Esoteric asks “ayo, Deck, you ready?” the two launch into a breathless pair of verses equipped with some incredibly dense internal rhyme schemes. Inspectah Deck comes through thuggin’ (“G coder, beast moder, never cease motor / Machine gun rap, clap until the beat’s over”) while Esoteric pays homage to his new collaborator (“I attack it harder, I’m Pat Tanaka / My sparring partner’s half of Sparta”). Legendary Brooklyn MC R.A. the Rugged Man has a featured verse with some intricate lines to match, especially this couplet toward the end: “wings up, heaven raiser, I’m a thug angel / I’ve been unstable since bangin’ beats on a lunch table.” 7L’s menacing, bassy beat provides the perfect backdrop to all the mayhem.

Though it may not have needed them, the album’s strength is definitely bolstered by its legends-only roster of guest MCs. Even beyond R.A., Every Hero Needs a Villain features some fantastic verses from the likes of Method Man, Large Professor, MF Doom, and GZA. The latter two have some especially inspired contributions. MF Doom begins his verse on “Ka-Bang!” with “grown ass man, mind from a trashcan,” and ends it with “ampersand hand-stand gas can,” which is pretty much all I could ever want from the Madvillain. GZA, meanwhile, appears on “When Gods Go Mad,” to conjure up some of the album’s most vivid storytelling and imagery delivered so impeccably that quotes won’t do it justice.

The best cut of them all, however, is the epic centerpiece, “Escape From Czarkham Asylum,” which stretches on for a staggering eight minutes. Let’s establish something here first — usually long-form tracks in hip-hop take the form of a short song followed by a skit (like Kanye’s “Last Call”) or two songs put together, probably so that the artist can get more money from their publishing deal (i.e. Drake’s “Cameras / Good Ones Go”). “Czarkham Asylum” is neither of those things. It is instead a veritable gauntlet of verses and beats strung together in pretty cohesive fashion. From the loud, heavy-as-lead instrumental the song starts out on to the funky drum fills it ends with, 7L’s production here is glorious. And Deck and Esoteric’s verses and delivery are so ferocious that they forget to make any shout-outs at the song’s start, then seemingly remember halfway through, proceed to get them out of the way, and keep the baffling momentum going like nothing even happened.

To hear a group put together a project that reaches a level of quality I would’ve never anticipated is an awesome surprise. To know that a prolific and influential artist who’s always lived in the shadows of his early works has finally pulled off the great later-career project he deserves to have to his name is even better.

On “Czartacus,” Esoteric raps “let’s get it understood / Czarface is a hero but he’s up to no good.”

I’d beg to differ.

Czarface’s music is rowdy, dark, gritty — in a word, villainous. But it’s much more than merely good.