Semi Official is a collaborative project between I Self Devine and DJ Abilities, with them both sharing the production duties. Additionally, I Self Devine holds down the lyrical onslaught and DJ Abilities is going for throats on the cuts. In fact, I don’t think there is other album (mixtapes excluded) that showcase DJ Abilities cutting prowess as much as they are spotlighted here. In line with his continued evolution, I Self Devine also has adjusted his vocal approach. If “Obelisk Movements”, as well as other previous contributions, were likened to him pounding the pavement handing out literature or speaking to the public via megaphone about the struggle, then “The Anti Album” is him immobilizing and putting the years of preparation into action.
In a sense, the album production is equally different as it is similar to Micranots projects. What I mean is, that they are primarily sonically different. Micranots is grimy and melodic, whereas Semi Official ranges from bright and hypnotic to mystical and intimidating. Yet, despite the obvious differences, they ultimately draw the same musical conclusions and touch the emotions in the same manner. There are also a few tracks that recapture the Micranots essence more directly such as “Wishing For A Miracle” and to a smaller degree, “Styfle Profession”.
Once again, I Self Devine applies some alterations to his flow. He tends to scale back on the rapid-fire attack mode, doing so allows him to inject more character and become more expressive with his inflections. In many ways, it was the missing element in his arsenal. Listening to his previous music you will get a sense of his politics, upbringing, and dedication to the Culture and craft, but you don’t completely get to know him. Semi Official and Micranots, “The Emperor And The Assassin” immediately after, started to change that. Then it is fully realized a few years latter on his solo album “Self Destruction”. At a glance, I Self Devine can be a viewed as intimidating. He’s certainly the guy you want on your team and not against it. However, a deeper look reveals he is exploding with charisma and with his sense of humor and mannerisms a career in acting or stand up might not be a stretch. All of these traits are present, if only lightly, on Semi Official.
On the first official song, “Grey”, he sets the tone for the urgency at hand, as he exclaims, “(I) Started with nothing and got half of it left…” On the second verse he provides a critical self-assessment that is reminiscent of “Analyze” from “Obelisk Movements”, “A righteous mind trapped inside the body of a hypocrite/Nobel peace, but on some pistol-grip/How can this exist within the same space/Rarely physical, out of body mental head case/I live inside my thought frames and see my life as a game/For loss or gain, pleasure and pain, it’s all the same…”
“Songs In The Key Of Tryfe” is an excellent paring of the fine art of lyricism with a numinous soundtrack, completed with frantic and rigid, yet fluid turntablism. In the opening when Abilities is cutting up the phrase “lost inside your mind” it is simply intoxicating and leaving your mind slightly unprepared for a back and forth rhyme tag team with I Self Devine and MF Doom. I can imagine how a true Hip Hop fan would hear that introduction for the first time and go, “Hold up, I need to try that again from the top” and bring it back to the beginning, a bit better prepared. Even-though both MCs come with their A game, one of the more lasting verbal moments is the hook, “The mind pulls the strings, while the body does the dance/In a dream, fully awake, walking on stolen lands” (in the last bar of the hook MF Doom, probably unable to resist a chance to express a untapped rhyme scheme a la his forte’, swaps the last two words for “swollen glands”).
It’s hard to clearly pinpoint, but I think my favorite track is “Transitions”. That’s mostly due to the verbally picturesque stylings of the second verse where I Self describes the scenery and surrounding mindsets of a plane crash in process, “I’m on planes cause I rock shows tri and bi-coastal/Overseas floating over water, deep oceans/Imagine a ni**a at 40 thousand feet, dipping, major turbulence/ill disturbance with wind currents/I’m trapped in a 5 ton metal apparatus/There’s never no survivors when you smash to the canvas/I’m looking at these faces/These upper-class, lower, middle-men, woman, child, black & white, Jew, protestant/Death obvious, see the shook look, heart in your stomach/Fools yelling, grown men squeezing their women/Holding hands, nose dive/Oxygen mask fall out of the sky/To pacify, we all gotta die!/I ain’t never seen the motherland, Pyramids in Egypt/Travel Mecca, Medina, Ghana, Sudan, Ethiopia/Freeing your mind rapidly, never told my Queen that I love her, I act savagely/I need resolution like enlisted men overseas seek prostitution/At the moment of death it’s all confusion/Ill-lusion, still cruising/Losing mad altitude, my attitude’s like a metal pipe with a deadly strike/I need closure, regain composure/Never could I dream it was over/With flashbacks like snapshots from Photomat/Fully laminated in the brain for the mind to grab/Split second from the wreckage and I come to peace/Bathe in fire like a Phoenix, I’M FINALLY FREE!”
It’s quite possible that verse is the one in his career that best perfectly accents all of his greatest strengths. He exercises creative and inventive use of cadence with rhyme schemes that either come from the audio blind-side or never come at all. It accents his unique perspective on things and makes use of his innate ability to provide information in the least obvious, but best poetic way possible. It also captures his expressive personality. Lastly, the audio-visual graphics are stunning. It seems so real you can almost picture being there and slightly experience a moment of panic. I’m convinced his description is probably a very accurate depiction of that scenario and you get the sense if was written from memory. So much, that I seriously almost called him to ask if it was a true story…you do the math on that one.
“Crime” was the lead single for the album and still exists as the identifying song for the album. While most of the album’s production sounds like effective use loops and breaks, “Crime” sounds more assembled from bits and pieces. To drive the theme into your dome piece, DJ Abilities cuts up some of the kings of shady street rap, Onyx, Mobb Deep, and Nas, while I Self Devine paints a picture of desperation & street wilding.
The single B-side was “Police Assassination Anthem”. Undoubtedly, many will be repulsed by that title and sentiment. It’s bold and shocking, I don’t think that was unintentional. However, before you simply dismiss such a perspective, it’s worth discovering why someone would feel that way. If you properly investigate, what you should find is there is a wealth of youth that feel this way, particularly in inner cities. There’s a long history of abuse, mistreatment, harassment, planting of evidence, lies, and racial profiling. The result is a growing number of people pushed to the limit and when you reach that point and no other options seem feasible, radical ideas take precedence. Clearly there are some needed steps to correct these issues. “P.A.A” may not offer the only solution, but it unapologetically shines light on the issue, making it hard to ignore.
“Get Up” has a nice B-Boy bounce to it and is a pure verbal exercise for I Self’s fly verbal stylings, “This is the love and hate relationship/Volatile about to flip, greet you with a pistol whip now you see me crystal clear/Every words a missile that’ll blast you with another issue/Self Esteem, good health I mean, how your Mom’s a fiend/Stop wandering! In the middle of war pondering/Bombs detonating, limbs falling off with smoke screens/Like do I belong here? If you need to ask, you need a mask with the filter missing/Now you’re in your true position/Stop scheming! And looking hard/Cause youse a fraud, plus your bodyguards missing a few vital body parts/Like heart, brain, backbone, and vertebrae/I’m tired in this game, ready to retire into flames and fire/The desire, no longer the same/It’s quite deranged, adolescent girls calling my name/And so hard to really truly deal with this/It’s scandalous, hold my face inside a open fist/Like 50 in the game, grey hair, working temp jobs, file exempt/Going to trial in denial on rent/ Loot spent, plus my child is rich/But like a dick I wasn’t present so I don’t get s**t/Is that karma?! A fly ni**a standing without his armor/Is that drama?! Your older sister’s just your baby’s mama/There’s no honor in ‘Your Honor’/Just blood donors in a cloud of loners getting stoned with the stoners/My whole uniform’s stripped, because I earned stripes/Five tours of duty, your truly, acting so moody/Black and unruly, evil rolls thru me, don’t act booshie, let’s get graphic like the movies!” That is some mighty fine rapping peoples… I swear, everytime I hear it I keep hoping it never ends or at least a second verse will magically appear…
For those that personally know I Self, they are aware that another key party of his history is his deep involvement in the Graf scene. You can peep a bit of his style on the "Anti-Album" artwork, as he drew the art for the front cover. He is undoubtedly a pioneer in the Twin Cities Graf story and early on was a key factor in laying the framework that allowed the scene to thrive. That subject wasn’t heavily covered in his music previously, but you can definitely find traces of it in there. “Nocturnal Terrorist Squad”, a three-part segment, is where he best explores it. As grimy and adventurous as the world of Graf may be, there is an expected unwritten code of ethics that separate the respected from the toys. In the third section, “10 Writing Commandments”, I Self addresses the key rules to the game.
“Wishing For A Miracle” reconnects I Self with his Dynospectrum brethren, Mr. Gene Poole, who wilds out on the first verse. I Self closes it off with an excellent verse about the male psychology in relationships, which are often rooted in insecurities.
Somewhat ironically, “The Anti Album” is actually a superb blueprint for a well-rounded album. It’s packed with a nice range of sounds, styles, topics, textures, and moods. There’s quality production, stellar scratching, and the first-rate lyricism of I Self Devine. I think the general consensus is that listeners left experiencing the album hoping to hear more in the future. If memory serves, at the time, there was only one actual Semi Official show, which took place at a New Years Eve Rhymesayers show at the Dinkytowner. I don't think there any others, but certainly not many. In terms of the Semi Official concept, there’s a going rumor that the Semi Official concept was something I Self originally planned to parlay into numerous projects where he partnered and co-produced them with a different producer…
Written By Kevin Beacham
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