[HIP-HOP] We’re used to Serge Severe being the Sharon Jones of boom-bap (boom-Baptone?). On his last two records, the Portland MC has branded himself as a throwback, flowing over jazz and funk-fueled beats that took listeners back to the golden age of hip-hop. His most recent mixtape, Severe Over Premier, proved the point—this dude loves the ’90s.
But Service Without a Smile, the MC’s first collaboration with prolific local producer Terminill (who has worked with Portland headliners like Luck-One, Cool Nutz and Illmaculate), is a decidedly high-tech affair. The wobbly, synth-driven “Switchitup” is all societal critique, but its central hook—“Tired of that same old thing/ Gotta switch it up on ’em”—could pass for the album’s mission statement. Terminill is known for crisp, squeaky clean and booming beats less sample-driven than studio-built, and most of Service Without a Smile’s tracks fit that mold. “Monstrosity,” a straightforward boast track with a Kanye-indebted hook and cuts from DJ Wels, sounds like the Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” but that’s not the side of the ’90s that Severe’s work usually brings to mind.
The album works best when stepping outside the collaborators’ comfort zones. “Know the Truth,” built around a hollering blues sample and big-picture politics from Severe and Luck-One, isn’t the kind of beat one normally associates with Terminill’s Flatline studios, but it leaves the listener hoping for more. The bassy “Rare Flow” finds Severe in an uncharacteristically loose mood, mixing lazy bars with double-time tighten-ups as Terminill’s beat coasts.
Terminill and Serge make an odd couple, but when they bend a bit, it proves both artists’ considerable range. Even with all the stylistic leg-stretching here, though, Severe’s crystal-clear verses tend to buoy the beats rather than slip between them. You can take the MC out of the old-school, turns out, but you can’t take the old-school out of the MC.
SEE IT: Serge Severe and Terminill play Ash Street Saloon, 225 SW Ash St., on Friday April 20. 9:30 pm. $5. 21+.