When a music fan hears the term “rock/hip-hop fusion,” a couple of thoughts may come to mind. Some may think of Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst teaming up with Method Man for “N 2 Gether Now.” Others may think of Eminem teaming with Kid Rock or Marilyn Manson. Whatever comes to mind (likely from the late ’90s or early 2000s), a decent amount of fans from both genres can agree that the combination just doesn’t work as well as it should. More often than not, the two sounds create a bad marriage — there were some good times, but mostly bad times for “the rockers and hip-hoppers,” as Durst would say.
This history makes Height With Friends latest release, Rock and Roll, that much more interesting. While the release is coming well after the initial boom period of mixing the two styles together, it works because the group has avoided the trappings of a defined sound.
When Limp Bizkit tried their hand at crossing over to hip-hop, some saw them as a rock act, and didn’t want to buy into the crossover. The same could be said on the other side of the coin for Lil Wayne’s recent foray into rock. When Wayne released Rebirth in 2010, it was immediately panned by fans and critics alike. There was a consensus for the artists to go with what they know — essentially, to stay within the genre into which they’d been typecast.
Height (née Dan Keech) himself began his musical career right around the same time of the rock/hip-hop explosion — it wasn’t until 2008 that the “friends” came along and became his crew. Together, they have created an ever-changing sound over the years and, most importantly, they’ve avoided being slung into one specific genre.
One glance at the title of the nine-track LP and the listener has a good idea of what they are getting into. In between the smooth and easy-listening rhymes is the constant use of drums and guitars, giving each song the perfect blend of rhymes over very rock-influenced beats. The blend becomes the major positive of this release, in that the mixing of the two sounds is never forced. It comes natural and makes the recording the blueprint of what a rock/hip-hop album should sound like.
Going back to Wayne, his album had the structure — rock beats and hip-hop lyrics — but lacked all the other necessary elements to make the mix work. There was no harmony, no natural blending of the two sounds. It just became a mangled and maligned sound. Rock and Roll finds the necessary balance of rock and hip-hop and it allows for a smooth listen.
While Rock and Roll may be a simplistic name for an album, the lyrics and content of the new record show that Height With Friends are ready to make a major impact. On “I Can’t Stand to Be Refused,” the sound matches the title perfectly. As the listener absorbs the first few chords of the beat, there is the feeling of being transported to middle of a saloon, perhaps in the middle of a bar fight. During this track, the battle rages as Height rhymes, “I get so battered and bruised/but I can’t stand to be refused.” This line, plus others throughout the song, demonstrate this struggle, but the overlaying message is that the group is beyond determined to succeed with the niche they’ve carved out.
This same message is echoed through on “Hard Work” as the listener is exposed to the grit of the collective. While the title again gives off the crux of the message, the hook drives home the determination: “Hard work in the dead of night/Hard work till the morning comes/Hard work walking up the wall/Hard work getting by on crumbs.”
The tracks and messages from this album show where Height With Friends are right now — a group not afraid to change. Members have come and gone, the sound has differentiated, but yet they’re still willing to experiment and present themselves to a new audience of listeners after many years and many albums.
Their latest release may be a tough sell to a classic hip-hop fan, just for the simple reason that Height With Friends isn’t your classic hip-hop act. However, respect is due for finding the harmony between rock and hip-hop and also presenting a nine-track album with solid, understandable messages and songs that don’t all sound the same. Rock and Roll provides an easy listen, and maybe sells fans, casual listeners, and critics alike on the idea that there can be a successful mixing of the polarizing genres of rock and hip-hop.
(Cold Rhymes Records, no address provided)