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Knowledge the Pirate - Flintlock Music Album Reviews

Given a leg up by Roc Marciano, the veteran rapper returns with his own take on classic, streetwise East Coast rap: tales of nefarious business delivered in painstaking, and often chilling, detail.

Calling yourself the “first gangster to rap over Neptunes beats” is a bold claim—but it’s just one in a series of industry boasts Knowledge the Pirate has amassed in an under-the-radar career that goes back to the 1990s. The rapper, who splits his time between Harlem, Philadelphia, and New Jersey, was originally discovered by Will Smith’s de facto bodyguard, Charlie Mack, in a rap battle. He was flown to Hollywood to attend the Jack the Rapper industry convention, where he impressed new jack swing pioneer Teddy Riley and signed a short-lived deal with Interscope. Knowledge moved on to rhyming over early beats by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo before Clipse became the Neptunes’ dope boys of choice; he also notched up ghostwriting credits on Will Smith’s Born to Reign. Throughout his musical moves, Knowledge maintained his street reputation, which allowed him to later brag, “I’m a real street dude. I’m not really bullshitting. I took Biggie Smalls’ girl.” But despite having his talent noticed by influential names, Knowledge grew impatient and distanced himself from the music world.

During this hiatus, Knowledge struck up a friendship with Roc Marciano, who persuaded him to pick up the mic again and offered him guest spots on his albums. Roc is now enshrined as the figurehead of a revered strain of East Coast hip-hop that layers shadowy, backstreet vignettes over quietly menacing, soul-sampling production, and it’s this canon of contemporary thug-rap mood music that Knowledge’s long-coming debut, Flintlock, adds to. Roc handles a third of the production duties himself—along with dropping a guest verse on the celebratory, almost gloating “Cant Get Enough”—and the rest comes courtesy of in-camp allies Elemnt and Mushroom Jesus. Together, they create a grainy, soul-saturated backdrop that complements Knowledge’s gravel-voiced dispatches from the crime world.

Knowledge’s declarative style is key to Flintlock’s appeal. He’s like a beat reporter: There is no room in his lyrics for overly tricksy wordplay or abstract ambiguity, just the cold restatement of facts detailing various nefarious and often brutal situations. If Roc Marciano is the slick-talking one in the room, Knowledge is the guy who very clearly warns everyone else what will happen if things do not go precisely to plan. There’s an ellipsis of violence in the steady tone of his voice even when he’s not documenting specific acts of retribution.

Case in point: “Wrinkled Feathers” is bedded by an Elemnt beat that mixes sinewy organ lines with flashes of guitar twangs as Knowledge introduces himself, “Hand on my nine while I’m taking these orders.” He proceeds to deliver the latest report: “So many died swimming in these waters/They found that nigga last night, body parts stuffed in the storage/Now his team is stagnant and dormant/When they seen it on the news that that nigga was a government informant.” Going forward, Knowledge mandates his team carry out background checks before striking up new business relationships. It’s a logical solution to a dramatic scenario.

The absence of gangsterized flights of fancy stamps Flintlock with an authentic feel. The understated way Knowledge relays tales of firearms and contraband—and alludes to the morals of the hustling game—heightens the tension. On the bluesy “Beers, Bullets & Bloodshed” he shows a keen eye for sketching a crime scene. A pit stop at a bar unravels to reveal a “musketeer over there standing on the stairs”; the young guns sitting at the back of the bar swigging vodka, we learn, are plotting to “knock ’em out they rocking chairs.” The nervy setup unfurls like a camera slowly panning to illuminate the scenario in painstaking detail. It’s this steady, mature hand that ultimately defines Flintlock—and gives credence to the potential that the Neptunes and Teddy Riley saw all those years ago.

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