The internet’s prominence has given way to a new age of battle rapping; Youtube’s rise as a valid outlet for entertainers has, naturally, separated hip-hop’s weeds from its chaff, granting the scrappiest battlers league prestige and national prominence. NYC emcee Soul Khan is well known in battle circles, and for good reason; his match-ups showcase an eye for detail, a raw charisma, and an incisive wit missing from many rappers’ recorded output. He’d often weave leftfield pop-culture references, English-prof vocabulary, and pointed lyrical barbs into one 90-second battle round, all delivered with commanding bravado; opponents would often struggle to keep the pace, inevitably resorting to Jewish jokes and height quips without saying anything of substance.
Soul Khan’s out of the battle game these days, but his transition from battle-circuit force of nature to respected underground emcee still causes comment sections the internet over to compare him to a certain Mr. Mathers, another rapper who cut his teeth in the cipher and turned his success there into an artistically successful recorded output. And while his raw talent was on display in his battling days, Soul Khan separates himself instantly from the pack by making good music. His latest release is Wellstone, and the free digital EP proves an engaging listen for hip-hop fans, a rarity in that it pairs Khan’s lyrical dexterity with upbeat, immersive production (courtesy of Deejay Element) to create a triumph of hip-hop replay value.
Khan and Element have their game down pat. The five proper songs here fly by – no track eclipses the three-minute mark – but each is individually polished, each beat crackling with high energy and inventive sampling, each chorus (whether rapped or sung by one of Khan’s on-point guest stars) catchy and memorable. Akie Burmess’ crisp tenor smooths out “Not Like That” and “Wellstone” with dynamic hooks; Khan himself, like Brother Ali before him, possesses the underrated skill of crafting a catchy rapped hook, which he deploys to great effect on “Khangregation” and “About Something”. Khan’s verses are immaculate throughout, his froggy, authoritative voice dancing nimbly around the beat. It’s all beats and rhymes – the meat and potatoes of hip-hop – and Khan and his collaborators have mastered the craft. “Oh, you ain’t lovin’ them hoes? That’s obvious, though, ’cause if you did you wouldn’t be callin’ ‘em hoes” he raps on “Not Like That”; whether brazenly mocking hip-hop’s casual misogyny, referencing “Arrested Development” in “Khangregation”, or dismantling the myth that monogamy and self-control are somehow antithetical to masculinity in “About Something”, he’s got something to day, and he’s a fresh voice in hip-hop.
It’s short, but the free Wellstone – available at Soulkhan.com – deserves hip-hop heads’ attention. With the verbal acuity, the unflappable swagger, and the social conscience of a legend in the making, Soul Khan remains an emcee to watch. And if you’d appreciate a few nerdy references, a Grass Roots sample, and an awesome Louis C.K. soundbyte to boot, well, this set is a no-brainer.