Sound track: Twenty Sixteens by C. Shreve

Local hip-hop artist C. Shreve the Professor is prolific. He’s constantly turning out new work as well as performing onstage and contributing to efforts like Cypher Univercity. His latest release, Twenty Sixteens is almost a double album, weighing in at 18 tracks.

“The Marquee,” produced by Aso, pairs Shreve’s jabbing delivery with laid-back beats and loungey sway. The song itself could be the manifesto of the album — its brags feel warranted and — perhaps surprisingly — not at the cost of some dogged opponent. Shreve is to rap what a swarmer is to boxing. Meanwhile, his Free the Optimus partner/fellow MC Mike L!VE raps with a kind of machine gun speed and power on “BAOW.” That aggressive conveyance is balanced with a sense of humor, a lithe bounce that keeps the flow loose at its most intense moments.

“Fade Away,” which starts easy and slow, builds on themes of personal responsibility and the drive for creative originality. The latter is topic Shreve circles back to, time and again, on this album — though he approaches his own efforts and the short comings of his detractors with less bravado than fiery righteousness. That’s not to say every track is even-handed or wholly respectful. Even hip-hop artists who aim for positive messages devote a certain amount of airspace to telling off frenemies. But there’s a lot going on the world that ought to be called out, and when that righteous indignation is directed toward universal issues, it’s exacting.

There’s a stunning balance between acridity and tenderness on “I Love H.E.R.” The lyrics bounce between overconfidence and self-exploration, between physical love and a greater expression, a broader paint stroke. Shreve’s metaphors dance between relationships, musical career and nature, deftly weaving a thread of connectivity. The crisp smack of snare under burbling keys (produced by ΔΣ) is like the staccato of rain on a placid lake face. There play between mood and texture, hard and soft is artful.

Shreve has a kind of trademark move — a guttural exhale, like the yogic breath of fire. He executes it at the beginning of songs and mid-track, a fighter readying himself for the ring. Raw energy is felt on tracks like “Asystole” (“You see these fakes and frauds? Well I don’t deal with ’em”) and the hard-hitting “I Don’t Even Sleep” (“A student of this life I got no key, I’m feeling stressed”). But if there’s a secret to be revealed it’s in the Kevo Beats-produced “RUH.” That track, featuring L!VE, centers on that fierce grunt: “Say ‘RUH’ if you’re a lifer.” The nimble verbal choreography between Shreve and L!VE alone is worth a listen, and shouting along with the lyrics can lift a low mood.

There’s an interesting twist, late in the album, with the dance song “Parasol.” It’s a platform for DJ Jet’s excellent scratches and the elastic, repeated chorus about a female character at a club. But if it seems out of character for Shreve or FTO to stoop to the misogynistic or salacious — well, that’s not what’s happening here. Shreve points out that the track is intended to get a response from the listener (this reviewer did a double take). “Historically, those songs tend to be particularly derogatory to women … This song is intended to be a dance club song and almost take that cliche angle (‘She just came to dance, she don’t care at all’), but, in reality, destroy misogyny right at its core,” he says. “The overall goal of the song was to create a dance song for the ladies (which is tricky as a married man) and to help the guys in the crowd realize that she might have just come to dance, and could care less about his intentions.”

Twenty Sixteens is not all so serious (in fact, that particular track sounds like a party), but even the short and swaggering “L!VE on the Beat” (produced by L!VE) feels measured and weighed. No words are wasted: “Not stunt rap or blunt rap, it’s be what you want rap / Rhymes by the dozens, hope your mama got a come back.”

The album ends with multiple bonus tracks. The third (and final) is the 1/2-minute doo-wop-based “Tell Your Mother,” featuring SK The Novelist (produced by Malik Abdul-Rahmaan & The Revelations). It’s bracing, crashing in wave after wave of sound and verse, a relentless and breathless assault. But there’s also so much light, from the breezy background vocals to the bright keyboard tones. It’s substantive — thought provoking and soul-quenching: “If you’ve been hungry since you woke up, hit the kitchen with my partners,” Shreve raps.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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