"My dear, my dear, my dear, you do not know me, but I know you very well." Okay, so that wasn't Tré's line - it applies nonetheless. In the more than ten years since Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde was released, we've watched and grown up with the former Slim Kid now known simply as Tré Hardson. The kid who once upon a time made fun of our mothers now composes odes to Mother Earth, finding his musical liberation in live musicians, mellow crooning, and positive messages. If you haven't been following Tré's career since Labcabincalifornia, prepare to be surprised.
Picking up where 2000's The Legend of Phoenix EP left off, the vibe on Liberation is definitely laid-back. Eschewing traditional Hip-Hop production techniques, Tré employs a live band on most of the cuts, making for an organic and relaxed atmosphere conducive to singing. Yes, singing. While Tré 's harmonizing shouldn't come as a shock to anyone familiar with his work, don't expect an album's worth of "Otha Fish"es or "She Said"s. The feel of the music here is more mature and calculated than the spontaneous energy of the Pharcyde albums and whether or not you enjoy the different direction really depends on your own tastes.
Love and relationships are the predominant themes running through Liberation and these topics mesh well with Tré's hybrid of rap and song. But although he doesn't go into full-out ballad mode, it sometimes feels that way, especially with the production being so serene. Even the "traditional Hip-Hop" tracks are relatively smooth, making the whole package seem not only "safe", but also a bit dull at times. Liberation isn't an album well suited for dancing to or blasting out of your car, but it will calm you down after a hard day or when you just feel the need to ease back. That's not to imply that there aren't any nice songs though because that's definitely not the case.
The album's standout, "Just Can't Hold", is actually a completely sung duet between Tré and Kim Hill that really shows off his vocal chops. The chemistry between the two is excellent and the band gets a bit of shine too. Less cheerful sounding is "The Girl", which, while still tranquil, has a very haunting feel to it. The production by Tré and Anthony Walker (with Printz Board on keys) really captures a spookiness that the lyrics may or may not be trying to convey ("Screamed your name in the hills just to hear a reply"). Of the more straightforward tracks, the two obvious highlights are "Roots, Love & Culture", featuring a superb guest spot from MC Lyte, and "Stay Around", which Dilated Peoples' Evidence laces with a great jazzy beat (complemented nicely by Tom Izo's flute). Other notable guests include Jurassic 5's Chali 2na, trading verses with Tré on "Follow I'll Lead", and Saul Williams, who inspires Tré to attempt a spoken word style over a "Red Light Special" sounding beat on "Playing House". Last, but not least, singers Dionna Nichelle, N'Dea Davenport, and the aforementioned Kim Hill add to the elegance of the album with their vocal contributions.
If all Hip-Hop albums sounded like Liberation, the negativity associated with the genre would cease to exist. Filled with songs that wouldn't seem out of place on a "Lite FM" station, Tré Hardson's debut solo LP is an obvious departure from his Pharcyde days that may leave fans of his early work puzzled or even upset. To reiterate a moot point though, it's been over ten years since the Pharcyde made their first appearance on wax. It's only common sense that Tré would have matured in that period and Liberation is proof of that. Hopefully his fans have also matured to the point where they can judge the album based solely on its musical merits rather than on expectations unfairly struck with one foot in the past.