Spirit in Stone

Some MCs have too much integrity for their own damn good. Your moms might prefer you listen to these virtuous lyricists over foulmouthed troublemakers like Master P and Fred Durst, and you might even be able to write a B-plus term paper on their jams, but cleverness and good intentions can't substitute for a distinctive character, which is something Lifesavas of Portland, Ore., are still developing on their debut LP, Spirit in Stone. This is not to say MCs Vursatyl and Jumbo the Garbageman don't command our respect -- Portland hasn't provided hip hop with any major heroes yet, so you gotta give these guys credit for trying -- but their record is merely the sum of its influences (A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots). While its a mark of their taste, it doesn't show an original voice just yet.

Though some of the songs exemplify the duo's lyrical chops, Spirit in Stonegets bogged down in lots of filler: The bows to reggae ("Fever," "5th Horseman") and the anti-war tirades ("Resist," "State of the World/Apocalypse/War"), for example, seem superfluous. If we lower our expectations, however, some parts of this album become reasonably enjoyable and even buoyant; for instance, we can't help but root for Jumbo when he promises to "leave you muted like a Tibetan monk's e-mail" on "Head Exercise." At other times, the MCs' cleverness and sincerity lead to some catchy, even moving conceits, such as Vursatyl's battle with several overblown egos -- including his own -- on "Hellohihey," and the spiritual closer "Me." But the scattershot and uneven nature of the album proves ultimately frustrating.

Lifesavas have a ways to go before their flow truly grips their audience. Granted, the MCs truly and dutifully uphold the hip hop tenet of keeping it real, but Spirit in Stone leaves us feeling that the act is made up of a bunch of really cool guys, rather than impressive or profound artists of lasting import. And in a congested MC market, cool will only get you so far.

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