You can’t write about hip-hop and not write about 9th Wonder. Or at least I seemingly can’t. For the past five years the man’s been a nearly constant presence in my journalistic exploits. Way back in 2007 (did the internet even exist way back then?) I was an album review rookie when I was handed his Dream Merchant 2. From there it was only a short jump to his collaborative album with Buckshot, The Formula, which of course was in many ways a precursor to his work with David Banner on Death of a Popstar, sprinkled liberally with projects from his Jamla/IWGG roster (Skyzoo, Rapsody, Thee Tom Hardy, etc.) in between. And now, almost four years to the day after I first typed the name 9th Wonder, I’m sitting down to review his long-awaited The Wonder Years project. I’d say we’ve come a long way together, but that “together” would imply that he’s got a catalog of articles about me – he doesn’t. This has been more of a one way street. He hits me with dope music and I write about it, and I’m more than happy with the arrangement.
The Wonder Years has been a long time coming – when we first reported on the album it was scheduled to include contributions from the likes of Mos Def, Q-Tip and more. While the line-up’s undergone a seismic shift since those early days, the spirit of the album’s the same; 9th’s created an album that slowly backs away from the bigger, heavily soulful tracks he’s best known for and delivers some more subtle, softer work. In the words of the man himself, it’s R&B, with a twist. While some part of us will always want to hear another Threat, 9th’s no longer the young(ish) man who first stepped into the studio with Jay-Z to make his dreams come true, so it’s only fitting that his music’s taken a more grown and sexy turn. Think about it this way: your more “classic” 9th production are M&Ms and The Wonder Years are pretzel M&M’s. If forced to choose you’d always go with the original, but pretzels and chocolate? Come on, who doesn’t dig a combination like that too?
Before the comments below devolve into a debate around the respective qualities of M&M varieties, let’s just hone in on the music. The best example of The Wonder Years more laid back approach has to be the slowly spooling, string laced driven Enjoy. An intergenerational west coast smooth rider, all three emcees involved (Warren G, Murs and Kendrick Lamar) are no strangers to intensity, but true to its title, Enjoy instead inspires the trio to kick back and let some SoCal sun shine on a NC beat. Similarly, while most producers would have echoed RZA’s ominous sound when making a beat for Raekwon, on No Pretending 9th is confident enough to let a cottony beat, anchored by a big bass drum, ride and trust that The Chef can cook up something tender. And while yes, Hearing the Melody is the most rappity rap selection on the album, that’s due far more to Skyzoo, Fashawn and King Mez’ lyrical assaults than his summertime friendly work behind the boards. Restraint is the hallmark of a more mature artist and on The Wonder Years 9th is mature as f**k.
Time and time again on Wonder Years 9th inspires some of the game’s biggest rappers, and biggest up-and-comers, to embrace their more romantic sides. Kweli goes back into full-on Brown Skin Lady mode on the jazzy Never Stop Loving You, Masta Killa is about as un-Killa as he’s going to get on Loyalty and Mac Miller will certainly make some teenage hearts melt on That’s Love. It all climaxes though (pun intended) with the soaring Peanut Butter & Jelly, featuring the incomparable Marsha Ambrosius. PB & J is not only fittingly smooth, with all due respect to One Night it’s the most overtly R&B selection on the album, and while the production takes a back seat to Marsha’s vocals, that’s exactly what good R&B production does.
While it’s easy to draw a distinct line between 9th Wonder’s hip-hop and R&B work the truth is he’s always somewhere in between, adding rhyme-worthy percussion to even the softest ballad and adding some serious soul to even the hardest banger. Maybe a 9th album hasn’t sounded exactly this breezy before, but it’s far from a detour for the man. In fact, it may be much more of a homecoming.
By Nathan S.