Lifesavas 

Spirit in Stone

As the first MC-signing to vaunted California indie hip-hop label Quannum Projects since the mid-'90s, Portland trio Lifesavas has plenty to live up to. Although the Davis-based imprint has built its legacy mostly via its world-renowned core of DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, and Latryx, its five-year support of this crew -- Vursatyl, Jumbo, and DJ Rev. Shines -- has proven wise. With its elegantly humanistic lyrics and dope beats, Spirit in Stone inserts a page in hip-hop's history book that burns with craft and integrity.

Straight up, Lifesavas owe an undeniable debt to early-'90s progressive hip-hop cliques, from LA's Freestyle Fellowship to New York's Native Tongues. But rather than ape those influences on Spirit's sixteen tracks, these cats boost them. For one thing, they rhyme better than their elders, as on "Soldierfied": "Charge it to the game?/What if the game got bad credit/With bulimic bank statements and IOUs and debits?/Where I stand/It seems like the game is repossessing dreams/And canceling niggas' lifespans."

Also, the group's production style stands out, as Jumbo's heavyweight beats bounce with tinges of guitar feedback, clanking pianos, and Rev. Shines' densely overlaid scratch tracks. Most important, the album evolves in mood. Playful battle tunes and positive anthems like "Livin' Time" gradually give way to the darker themes of "State of the World" and "Fifth Horseman." The light finally seeps in on the resolute album-closer "Me," as the MCs remember hip-hop childhoods and departed friends over soulfully bright keyboard-heavy funk.

Though Lifesavas don't exactly seem to be trying, Spirit in Stone lives up to the burden of being a Quannum album. In fact, it surpasses the label's standard, which is good news for fans of that endangered species known as solidly built hip-hop.

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