If Kanye West arrived on the scene this year as a college dropout, then Us3 debuted in 1992 not only as Harvard graduates, but distinguished professors of their art. Their unique mix of hip hop and jazz flavours ensured them buckets loads of exposure, providing both genres with something fresh to chew on.
With a simple formula based on raiding Blue Note records (the daddy of jazz labels for all you uncultured souls) vaults of antique jazz recordings and setting them to their signature style trip hop beats, the group’s breakthrough came via the infectious soulful groove of Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia). With a laid back urban summer vibe the first single from their debut Hand On The Torch was an unprecedented hit in clubs across the world for Geoff Wilkinson’s distinctive crew.
Fast forward a dozen years, with three more studio albums under their belts and we arrive at Questions, which sees Geoff drilling far too deep in the same vein, albeit with new vocalists Mpho Skeef and Reggi Wyns. It all starts fairly convincingly with mellow Hammond organ vibes smoothly layered over easy going acid jazz – fans with be experiencing deja vu over drive, as opener A New Beginning is anything but its namesake. Watcha Gonna Do places chocolate coated soul vocals, on top of smooth RnB and is defiantly one of the albums strongest moments, while Get It Together is firmly back in Blue Note sample territory with muted trumpets wailing through more silkily delivered lyrics.
From these lofty heights, Can You Feel It is the start of a nose dive that would beat Icarus to sea level. Attempting a ‘world/roots’ percussive feel, the backing beats were actually stolen from a Casio G-3000 keyboard stuck in samba demo. The rapped lyrics do little to save this sinking ship, and When She’s Dancing does even less to remedy the tumbling credibility of these (once) profoundly original artists.
Believe in Yourself sets a distinctively positive rap tone, as it angrily questions the conflict scarred planet Earth of 2004. However some lines just aren’t as strong as others, with: “War is always sandwiched by peace, I don’t know, I guess it’s just the mark of the beast” being pretty much the bottom of the barrel. The two remixes of their breakthrough record Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia) are nothing short of B-side single tripe that should never have even made it to the shortlist for the album. Let’s face it, when you have to re-release your one smash hit repeatedly, it doesn’t send particularly positive messages in relation to the strength of your new material.
After hearing Questions I’m left wondering where how the inspired sound of their previous efforts has vanished so drastically. Too many of the tracks are too poor to warrant releasing an album of new material. Though a cheap shot, a remix LP would’ve at least had stronger base material than what consistently sounds like early demos of the fusion pioneers.