REVIEW: Ocean Howell – La (prod. by Olee)

Ocean Howell
Self-Released; 2012


The rapper La was party to 2010’s Gravity, the best Seattle-area hip-hop album of the last five years. (It’s imperative to mention Def Dee’s outstanding production work on the project, too.) Since that release, La’s output has been consistently excellent. Roll With The Winners was the gritty, aggressive portrait of an artist rhyming to eat, and SEALAB 2012 saw the MC take a slightly more eased back approach to his mic tactics.

Enter Ocean Howell, a free (for now) nine-track album featuring production entirely by Olee. La has employed the compositional talents of a single producer on all four of his projects, a strategy that creates much needed album identity and continuity, and one I wish more rappers would practice. The title of the album (and every track on it) references skateboarders which is an ode to the MC’s beloved childhood pastime. The subject matter in La’s lyrics, however, doesn’t directly correlate.

Ocean finds the rapper again talking his glorious trademark shit, executing deft turns of phrase and increasingly clever ways of putting lesser rappers in their places. There are also familiar references to the man’s difficult past and hopefulness for a better future. And of course the requisite weed raps. La sounds focused and motivated, executing his natural abilities over Olee’s Golden Era beats which are tastefully adorned with soul- and disco-inflected samples. Highlights include the saxophone-laced “Kareem Campbell” and “Pepe Martinez” (featuring State Of The Artist’s Thaddeus David), which matches a harried fire alarm sound effect with La’s fierce (albeit offensive) disses.

(An aside: the MC has started to regularly use the N-word on this album which, to my knowledge, is the first time he’s used the racial signifier on wax — though I have heard him drop it in battles. I took to email to ask La why he chose to use the word and his answer revealed a difficult and complicated relationship to the term, but no less academic reasoning than what we might expect from so-called “higher” authorities. I think all non-white folks are entitled to their respective opinions on the use of the N-word and mine certainly differs from La’s, but I can assure you his judgment is neither flippant nor casual.)

In this blogger’s estimation, the quality of Ocean Howell slides in somewhere between Roll With The Winners and SEALAB, the focus of La’s rhymes settling into a nimble balance of traditional battle rap and real-talk societal observations. Past releases may have found him more amiable (see: Gravity) and rawer (Winners) in nature, but never before has the MC sounded more comfortable or on point. Hearing La pick a beat apart with the cold precision of a brain surgeon has become one of Seattle rap’s greatest pleasures.

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Album Reviews Downloads


Click album cover for Bandcamp link.

Check the preview video for SEALAB 2012 (officially dropping tomorrow). This album marks La’s third time out with his third different producer. Jester gets behind the boards for a full 12 tracks this time, lacing the MC with sample-heavy joints that are less aggressive than Roll With the Winners but more contemporary than Gravity. The title of the album references the eponymous cartoon series from the early 1970’s and the Adult Swim redux from 2000.

La is still a problem on the mic, his metaphors and boasts sticking to the beats like darts on corkboard, but LAB is definitely the weakest of his three LP’s. It’s become clear that La can outpace the majority of Town rappers and it’s this blogger’s belief that dude can rhyme about anything and make it sound interesting. For the duration of LAB, however, La concerns himself mostly with two things: weed and sex. And, while this may have been the point, it doesn’t mean it’s as engaging as his previous albums.

The other issue is with Jester’s production. What made Winners such a dynamic listen was the jab-hook-uppercut combination of La’s all-out rhyming-like-his-life-depended-on-it steez and Blu-Ray’s throwback sample slap. Jester’s beats often lack the same authority. Not to say there aren’t highlights: “Dutches” and “Magnums” feature heady, hazy synth and both tracks refreshingly stand apart from anything found in La’s back catalog. And “Goods” is the most radio-ready the MC has ever sounded with a track that pops along in the same mode as Biggie’s “Juicy.”

The other notable aspect of LAB is the presence of some fairly heavy-hitting cameos. I won’t ruin the surprise in advance of the album’s release, but I will say “Diamonds” is a triumphant posse cut that features two of La’s prominent brothers in both rhyme and ethnicity. It’s dope to see accomplished MC’s co-sign for La on his own album, but the greater testament is the fact that their presence isn’t (and never was) necessary to affirm his skills. On his way to local rap stardom, La has held his own consistently. With a few adjustments on the next go-round, his star will grow even brighter.

Album Reviews Downloads Video

DOWNLOAD: “Exhibit L” – La (prod. by Jester)

Click image to D/L.

“Exhibit L” is the final leak off La’s upcoming SEALAB 2012, his full-length collab with producer Jester. La spits autobiographical with razor sharp wit on this track. Based on the two previous drops from LAB, it sounds like the MC has eased his foot up off competing rappers’ necks a bit since last year’s rancorous Roll With The Winners. Dude has a wide array of moods but his flow never seems to suffer when switching between ’em.


DOWNLOAD: “Magnums” – La (prod. by Jester)

Click track artwork to D/L.

“Magnums” is the second leak from La’s next project, SEALAB 2012. Jester on the beat. This song is about getting laid, not the infamous cop show from the 80’s that starred the Patron Saint of Mustaches, Tom Selleck. (Though if it were, La would undoubtedly make it an entertaining song.)

Judging by this and the last drop from SEALAB (“Dutches”), this album promises yet another sound from La. Dude has already shown he can go Golden Era with Gravity (206UP.COM’s top Seattle hip-hop album from 2010) and gully with Roll With The Winners (another standout from last year). The artist formerly known as Language Arts is quickly on his way to shedding his rep as just another battle rapper.


DOWNLOAD: “Dutches” – La

Click image to D/L the track.

“This a fly love song…” to weed. The first advanced drop from La’s third album, SEALAB 2012. The technically proficient Filipino MC gets better on every track he drops. Zelot on the guest vocals, Jester on the beat.