Something about the BreakLites calling their new album RAPFACE - all caps, accompanied by an illustration of a vicious animal with the title clenched in his teeth - seems weirdly incongruous when compared to the music the BreakLites make. The packaging is so aggro that when you finally hear what the BreakLites do, you can't help but laugh. This is a hip-hop group that places a premium on the sound of the record; this is an album that mostly drifts along amiably, MC Cruel's steady stream of words floating on top of a bed of tight beats and smooth melodies - melodies that, for the most part, stay out of the way of the rap. With the exception of the occasional scratchy guitar lick popping through the mix, the music just serves to buoy and support the vocals.
Listening to the BreakLites' new album - the group's fourth - the first thing that becomes apparent is the ease and professionalism with which the album flows. In place of blaring sirens and dance-floor crowding clatter is a smooth assemblage of mature hip-hop that first addresses lyrical and musical quality, as opposed to oft-embraced qualities like ego and posturing. Thought has clearly been given to the sound of these songs, which largely embrace a sort of warm glow, even as the vocals occasionally verge on the edge of angsty.
"Our sound has gone all over the place, because we just kind of go with what we're feeling," says the BreakLites' MC Cruel. "The new album is a departure from our last album, because the last album was kind of a concept album - not really, as far as an idea, but it was just a dancey, up-tempo album that was made for playing shows, to get the energy up. So, our new album, RAPFACE, is more just straight-up, boom-bap hip-hop. It's cool, because this is the first album where we've had Bannack Stebor playing the keys, so it's got a lot more of a live aspect to it. We have a few songs where there's no sampling at all, which I like a lot."
As I write this, the BreakLites are in the middle of a fairly substantial tour in support of their new album, having hit places like Denver, Albuquerque, Tulsa, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix and San Diego. As of printing, the BreakLites will be on their way to making a triumphant return to Washington - playing a show on New Year's Eve at the Top of Tacoma.
"I like (the local hip-hop scene)," says Cruel. "I think that the Northwest in general is really blooming right now."
For the sake of space, I won't recount the long list of artists that Cruel produced to back up his claim.
But let it be said that the BreakLites are more than worthy of being added to that list.
Note: You can currently name your own price to download any of the BreakLites' albums, including RAPFACE, at the group's website, TheBreakLites.com.
[Top of Tacoma Bar & Grill, Saturday, Dec. 31, 9 p.m., 3529 McKinley Ave, Tacoma, WA, (253) 272-1502