Probably even the most commercial heads have heard Jedi Mind Tricks mentioned at some point, or at least of their emphatic, portly front man in Vinnie Paz. It's a testament to their reputation of dropping their vicious brand of more recently, hard street anthems and…hard street anthems. It seems that these days, Vinnie Pazienza and production ace, Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind are known for their overtly violent and occasionally introspective tracks that have populated their last two albums. This newer material is far removed from the early days, back when Violent by Design or The Psycho-Social-Chemical LP's were the most talked about discs of the underground, and the days in which Jus Allah and Vinnie P went back and forth over the darkest backdrops imaginable.
As JMT grew, some say the ego of Jus Allah did too, and eventually Vinnie and Stoupe were left to continue the legacy of the group. 2003's Visions of Gandhi came as a shock to many listeners because one, they weren't used to hearing Vinnie on his own, and two, many believed Paz had 'dumbed-down' his rhyme style. People, look back at his VBD era lyrics – he's still talking about maiming, killing and 'faggots' (with his penchant for intertwining obscure religious references) on nearly all the tracks, it's really not that much of a departure. Stoupe's new sound was however; his spaced-out, often chilling soundscapes were replaced by more Spanish/Latino influenced bangers which many either loved or hated. 2004's Legacy of Blood caused many to write JMT off completely, as it followed the same trend of the previous year, feeding the criticism that JMT were never "going back to the Violent By Design shit". Is it that much of a shock? A lot of things happened. They lost a core member, Stoupe decided to embrace his heritage, and Vinnie had to take on the bulk of rhymes, something perhaps daunting at first glance. So, come 2006, they drop Servants In Heaven, Kings in Hell, an album that Vinnie proclaims is their most "diverse and proudest" piece of work yet. One things for sure, for what JMT do, they do it damn well.
One thing you'll notice immediately is Stoupe is still following his current trend. The 'Intro' is cinematic Stoupe at his best with epic strings that rise and fall, while grabs of Vinnie's previous work are interpolated over the top making for a truly ominous opening. It fits perfectly once the commencement of 'Put Em In The Grave' pulsates out of the speakers, sounding like something straight from Sicily, which is no surprise given Paz's Italian heritage.
Yo roll the dro and spark/
A bunch of animals like Noah's Ark/
A rapper so ill, my flow just stole Jehovah's heart/
My fist'll break a fuckin boulder in half/
When I was young I'd smack a stick off of ya shoulder and laugh/
I've chosen a path/
Spoke on my emotional past/
Spoke on everything from water how the ocean is vast
I can't believe people hate on Vinnie's newfound flow. It's so charismatic and ferocious and while admittedly at times the subject matter and rhyme scheme is repetitive, he's too entertaining to ignore. Did I mention the hook features ill Primo style scratches from Stoupe as well? The thing Servants also does so effectively is the way in which the tracks are sequenced, providing the perfect intro and outro to the next track, consistently. So once you've recovered from the hardcore stylings of "…Grave" you'll be transported to the windows-down, cruising in Rio 'Suicide', where Stoupe's Spanish guitar creation simply glides along, begging for Paz to spit everything from denouncing fake rappers to showing no love for treacherous bitches.
Then comes the first genuinely stunning moment on the LP – there are a couple. 'Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story' featuring RA The Rugged Man tells two stories – Vinnie's perspective, which puts him in the shoes of a US troop in Vietnam and examines the motivations for why he is fighting, and ultimately the realization that he doesn't want to be there:
They say we tryna stop Chinese expansion/
But I ain't seen no Chinese since we landed/
Send my whole entire unit thinking we can win/
Against the Viet-Cong guerillas there in Jiadin/
I didn't sign up to kill women or any children/
For every enemy soldier we killin six civilians/
Yeah, and it ain't right to me/
I ain't got enough of motherfuckin fight in me
RA's verse steals the show however, and represents the flipside of a soldier in Vietnam taking advantage of prostitutes, toting guns and gaining respect as opposed to being just "another human being" back home. The verse is so much more meaningful once you find out that RA's father was a Vietnam vet. The haunting beat does the subject matter justice – a fantastic concept and one of JMT's finest moments. 'When All Light Dies' and 'Serenity in Murder' keep the liveliness coming, the latter displaying some damn good boom-bap influenced murder-rap.
Most have heard the street single 'Heavy Metal Kings', which doesn't disappoint. The now defunct Non-Phixion's Ill Bill comes in to drop a verse, however what's with his new found flow? Sounds kinda forced. The epic orchestration of Stoupe's setting fits the two nicely however. You'll also definitely notice on this record that Vinnie Paz addresses more socially conscious issues, from Vietnam, to suicide and on 'Shadow Business' the role that multi-national companies play in slave labor, an interesting (albeit somewhat time restricted) exposé. 'Razorblade Salvation' is the second amazing moment on the disc which features indie-darlings Sufjan Stevens vocalist Shara Worden on the hook over moving piano keys. Here, Paz laments the possibility of suicide but gives brothers in arms hope of overcoming their problems via introspective verses.
Servants is Heaven is a damn good record. Once you've uncovered all the tracks I've been talking about, there is still group collabos with Sean Price, Reef the Lost Cauze and Block McCloud to follow, while 'Black Winter Day' closes the album with somber Spanish guitar and strings, a virtual 'thank-you' from Paz to his fans and family while at the same time hinting that Hip-Hop may be getting the better of him. Let's hope not. The beats on this disc are pretty much flawless, so take them for what they are. From the AOTP album, to executive producing the new Outerspace LP, Vinnie P has had a quality-filled, productive year. Forget what people tell you about JMT not being the same. They moved with the times, grew naturally, and stayed true to themselves (clichéd I know). Now I want more.