Review: Sa-Ra, “The Hollywood Recordings”

The Hollywood Recordings

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Two years ago, Sa-Ra Creative Partners was the shit. A trio of studio musicians – Taz Arnold, Om’Mas Keith and Shafiq Husayn – who made credited (Jurassic 5’s Power in Numbers, Pharoahe Monch’s “Agent Orange” single) and uncredited contributions to several high-profile projects, many called Sa-Ra the future of the new power soul imperative. Dr. Dre sang their praises. Kanye West signed them to his fledging G.O.O.D. Music imprint. Okayplayer fanatics obsessively traded their material.

The Hollywood Recordings arrives well after that era of initial discovery. Many of its 19 tracks have already been released, either legitimately (2005’s Second Time Around EP, 2004’s “Glorious” 12-inch) or illegitimately via official and unofficial mix CDs and bootlegs. The album itself arrives after a year of delays as a result of G.O.O.D. Music’s deteriorating relationship with Sony Music. But Babygrande should be commended for stepping in and issuing this long-anticipated project. These songs may be old to Internet heads, but they’re a revelation to the rest of us.

Sa-Ra has a quixotic image. The trio mixes street pimp theology with lushly infectious soul, resulting in horny, freakazoid undulations. “I don’t want to wife you/But can you be my bitch?” they sing on “Bitch.” Some tracks are undercut with dark, operatic tones reminiscent of Parliament; others, particularly the dyke-out anthem “Tracy” (with Rozzi Daime), mimic the fuck rap of Spank Rock and Amanda Blank. As one of the Sa-Ra crew puts it on “White! On the Dance Floor,” “I’ll fuck ‘em, white or black, man.” The super aggressive “Not on Our Level” invites Capone-N-Noreaga and Lord Nez to the sex party, and the trio responds with hardcore thug talk. “I’m god and the devil mixed into one/Heaven and hell, the moon and the sun/I’m Nore Nore my bitches is out of orbit,” raps Nore before the hook drops in, “You don’t want to fuck with me!/Nigga we play dirty!”

Fans of Sa-Ra tend to geek out on the beats and ignore everything else. From a strictly musical perspective, The Hollywood Recordings is generally on point, save for a few tracks, particularly the murky “Bitch” and “Sweet Sour You” (featuring Bilal on the vocals). As a self-contained unit that plays everything from samplers (MPC 3000, SP 1200) to analog instruments (pianos, synthesizers, drums, electric guitar), they can make music that combines the sensuous warmth of the Roots with the crisp, hard-hitting tweets of J Dilla (who makes a requisite appearance on “Thrilla”). This leads to a recording that swings from strength to strength, from the lovely “Rosebuds” to the stomping funk of “Fly Away” (which boasts a dream matchup of Erykah Badu and Georgia Anne Muldrow) and the Ohio Players-esque “Hollywood (redux).”

But from a conceptual standpoint, The Hollywood Recordings has a few problems. It sounds like a collection of tracks instead of a full-fledged suite that carries you through a story. Many of the cuts feel like jam sessions instead of tightly constructed songs, and while that may enhance their appeal, it gives the disc a rough, unfinished quality.

Still, in the future, when people want to understand what 00 soul was about, they will turn to The Hollywood Recordings. It marks a strangely decadent period in our society when our rapacious lust for sex, money, fashion, drugs and street fame is seemingly redeemed by our demand that we deserve such things by divine right. Sa-Ra neither deserves the blame nor the credit for this, but their feverishly imaginative fuck-funk inadvertently reflects it.

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