"First date was lovely, and the second was stellar: by the third I was liking you hella," Bay Area MC Celsius 7 states on my Indian Summer jam "Difficult" from his new album Life Well Spent. Leave it to the former Psychokinetics crew member to vibrantly revive the hoary "hella" chestnut -- it's not the first time you hear it on a disc that's full of sunny tracks from the hip-hop comfort zone, and also includes references to Wild Style, Krush Groove, Doug E. Fresh, Rubik's Cube necklaces, "Where's the beef?," and Dungeons and Dragons. Hey, what's that? An EPMD sample? Aw yeah.
"I don't keep up much with current hip-hop," the down-to-earth rapper told me over the phone. "A lot of it just doesn't catch my ear. I'm drawn more to the classics like Outkast, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Nas, like that. Or else more underground stuff like El-P, Zion I, Aesop Rock, Yelawolf. Later Eminem is good, too. And my friends laugh at me because I listen to a lot of what they call "Castle Rock," like Arcade Fire, Muse, Black Keys. Heartfelt lyrics with good music.
"But Life Well Spent is my ode to the Golden Age of hip-hop -- specifically the Golden Age of Bay Area hip-hop, in the late 1990s and early 2000s when there was such a tight family of MCs and clubs like Tru Skool and Elefunk, when you could go out to the club every night and there would be a free exchange of creativity and ideas." Catchy tracks off the new joint like "Pop Rox," "Heavy Mental," and "Small Science" bring to mind that time, while the entrancing opening run of "Minds Like Me," "Givin' Up," and "Don't Take Time" perfectly embody it.
Cel's style may hark back to the glory days with an easy flow, catchy hooks, and subject matter that roams from fly girls to money problems to ladder-climbing ambition (and back around to fly girls) -- but the production on Life Well Spent, his follow up to 2008 solo debut "Wanderlust," is sparkling fresh and hints at the new. A large roster of guest -- including Baby Jaymes, iLL Media, Foreign Legion, Loyalist, Denizen, and the notorious Dirt Nasty (a lifelong friend from Cel's days growing up in Alameda) -- helps bring everything up to date.
And for those who may get the impression that Celsius 7 is a wholly wholesome soul -- the opposite of his raunchy, raunchy cousin Smooth Rick of raunchy, raunchy Bay rap collective Kalri$$ian -- well, Celsius still comes through with the outright dirty talk on "KnockFace" (unsurprisingly joined by Dirt Nasty).
"I'm always looking to challenge myself," Cel told me. "My first album was pretty much all on my own. This one's more a collaboration and explores more sides of me. The idea of it re-energized me to move on to the next phase."