The Physics’ long-awaited second LP, Love is a Business, is that rare collection of music that isn’t even a week old but already feels comfortably familiar. It’s a lot like that well-worn paperback copy of your favorite novel you stuff into your carry-on before every vacation; or one of the few remaining CD’s you’ve chosen to leave displayed on your bookshelf, a tangible reminder of how carefully we used to curate the music that meant something to us, standing in defiant opposition to the daily haphazard sprawl of un-zipped files littering our computer desktops. Love is a Business is, at the risk of sounding jadedly cantankerous, a throwback to when hip-hop mattered. The fact that the online method of this album’s delivery won’t vary from every other release today is not a lost irony. Still, this is a record that feels like it should first be held in your hands, read over carefully with your eyes, and then discovered with your ears, song-by-song, in the comfort of your ride or living room. You know, the way discerning heads used to distinguish the hip-hop that mattered most.
Given The Physics’ deliberate musical track record, this isn’t a surprising notion. The trio of producer (and sometime MC) Just D’Amato, and MC’s Thig Natural and Monk Wordsmith run a musical storehouse much like the celebrated local micro-brews referenced in their lyrics. Since the group’s 2007 debut album, Future Talk, their goal has always been to develop artisanal rap for well-paletted listeners using carefully concocted musical recipes with no disposable ingredients. That promise of quality was realized in subsequent EP releases, 2009’s High Society and last year’s Three Piece. Love is a Business is a further distillation and refinement of The Physics’ formula that relies heavily on layered compositions and soulful R&B progressions. It’s a richer listening experience than that of the crew’s past work, with subtle nuances and off-beat affections that suggest an act at the height of its maturity and creative zenith.
The first thing to note about LIAB’s vibe is how every one of its 13 tracks is given greater significance within the context of the album as a whole, a characteristic the majority of contemporary hip-hop records sadly lack. The first two songs on the album (the title track and “These Moments”) are exercises in quiet restraint. They lack hip-hop’s standard propulsive rhythms and instead rely on richly-layered vocal textures and interspersed live instrumentation to provide distinction and balance to Business’ wide spectrum of flavors. Even “Coronas on Madrona,” one third of last year’s brief Three Piece EP (and perhaps the best Seattle hip-hop track of 2010), seems more fully realized within the confines of LIAB. That’s not to say the album doesn’t feature tracks that can’t stand on their own. The best of these is the Native Tongues-channeling, “Cheers,” where Justo executes a familiar dusty knock and easy bass groove with enough skillful tribute to stand up to even the most stubborn Golden Era revivalist’s skeptical ears. Similarly, album closer “Babble” demands its own attention with commanding horn blasts and an industry-affirming cameo from Phonte (of Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange). Both are excellent examples of hip-hop song making at its finest, but, unlike these tracks, most of the album’s other components would have difficulty existing independently of the whole. That’s meant as a compliment rather than a knock. LIAB is a linear, holistic listening experience, not something that can be broken down easily into separate elements.
Obvious attention was paid to the high grade production value of this record, but as any head will tell you, a hip-hop album ultimately travels only as far as its lyricism will allow. “Love” is in the title of this album and Thig Natural and Monk Wordsmith make sure it remains a prevalent theme throughout, giving careful consideration to what the love of their musical hustle means in relation to daily lives consisting of nine-to-five grinds and romantic matters of the heart. The slow roll of “Red Eye” is a familiar story of a lovesick traveler looking forward to coming home to the physical comforts of his woman. It’s a sophisticated outlook on domestic love that portrays a mature monogamy refreshingly devoid of pretense or prudishness. On the other hand, the playful bounce of “Clubhouse” is less about the strictures of commitment and more about f*cking for the sake of f*cking. The lesson here is that both types of relationships have their time and place, but careful regard for the consequences of each is not a mutually exclusive act from engaging in either.
The other important lady in the life of this crew is the physical environment responsible for nurturing the trio since childhood. Namely, the group’s home base of Seattle, Washington. There’s a deep love and necessity for their town that goes beyond a simple regard for a few favorite local restaurants and coffee shops. Tracks named for actual locations in the city (“Seward Park,” “Coronas on Madrona”) give the impression that this album couldn’t have been made without the influence of the group’s native area code. Thig Nat’s easygoing, composed flow is derived straight from a definitive West Coast nonchalance, especially of the type found in the Pacific Northwest. On “Cheers” Monk Wordsmith recounts an interaction with people from another city who wonder aloud if there are black folks in Seattle. Indeed there are, and Monk shows he is one of many highly skilled underground rappers with a hustle steeped in the city’s rich, albeit lesser-known, hip-hop tradition. Love is a Business is an important entry into that heritage, an album that should be cataloged and archived as a moment when Seattle rap officially entered adulthood.