In every life trouble is inevitable, but the misery is optional. Some people dwell on their problems while others are too busy focusing on solutions. Ugly Heroes’ self-titled album is more of the former. It’s one of those tough listens, but they’re not saying anything wrong. The 15 tracks included on this album explore the very real conditions a lot of people are facing, from the economy and grieving lost friends and family, to political division and suicide. To some, it can be a bit much to sit through all at one time, but it’s all a matter of perspective. The main thing is the music is well done.
Ugly Heroes consists of Detroit native Apollo Brown on production, Red Pill (also of Detroit), and Verbal Kent of Chicago supplying the rhymes. If you follow the news, of course you know that Detroit and Chicago residents have a fair amount of things to gripe about. The ills of society have hit these two cities particularly hard. Ugly Heroes presents itself as an updated version of something like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message.” Apollo Brown, who recently produced the remix to Ghostface Killah’s “Twelve Reasons to Die” album, offers up some beats that straddle the line between gloomy and soulful (pretty much what you would expect if you’re familiar with the Detroit hip-hop scene). Some of the tracks could be fitting for R&B records in terms of the slow tempo and instrumentation, but they fit even better here and allow Red Pill and Verbal Kent to explore the dark reaches of their minds to articulate the struggles they’ve faced past and present.
The album as a whole reminds me of Atmosphere’s 2008 release “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That S___ Gold.” That describes the whole tone of ‘Ugly Heroes’ perfectly. Red and Verbal spend most of the album sorting through problems, but they don’t come off weary and defeated in their tone very much on this record. While I can’t imagine it making the average person go out and plant a tree and play hopscotch, there is a vibe of quiet determination playing out over the songs. As suggested on the song “Hero’s Theme”: “Every good hero needs a theme song.” The songs are meant to be moving and stir up listeners that may be in a rut, but unlike say The Roots’ “How I Got Over,” there’s very little positivity that comes through. The lines “I might not be the coolest at the party / I might not be the sharpest with a Sharpie. I’ll never have a bank account I’m proud of / and I’ll probably always feel like I’m working from the ground up” aren’t followed with any sort of verses or song that sound like a success story. You may be left to wonder if this was done on purpose because life doesn’t always get much better for some, or they just flubbed it execution-wise.
Lyrically, Ugly Heroes are very competent, but they have a way to go to catch up to the other artists mentioned here that have made similar records. That being said, it’s a huge departure from the current rap acts on the charts that make songs about partying and living high on the hog while forgetting where they come from. On the song “Graves,” they let it be known that instead of trying to pull you into some fantasy where money grows on trees and you can get away from everything that bothers you on your yacht, they’re in the thick of real life situations with you: “You can’t afford to walk off from your job / cause you gotta get your money and the money is your God.” If the phrase “keeping it real” still means anything to you, you may want to give this one a try. The subject matter could possibly wear on you a bit, but it’s presented with the best of intentions.