higher-learning-reviewExpress – Higher Learning
Self-Released; 2013
Day & A Dream Rating: 4.5 out of 5
DOWNLOAD: Mediafire

The evolution of a rap artist is always interesting to witness. Many artists spend the early parts of their careers establishing their sound, experimenting and tinkering with different things until they eventually find their niche and what works for them. It doesn’t happen overnight; but, if you’re lucky, you find that before it’s too late.

Emerging Houston rapper Express finds himself on that experimenting path currently. It began in 2011 with his soft release Out For The Classics, and then rolled over into 2012 with his mixtape How To Be A Player. The latter, it seems, influenced Express to draw inspiration from popular Black films, using them not so much as concept album material as starting points off which he could bounce the stories he planned to tell. Express himself voiced discontent with HTBAP, not entirely convinced it was the best work he could have put out. Thus, he took it back to the drawing board on his latest release, Higher Learning. And while it, too, takes both its name and some subject material from a movie, Higher Learning also serves as Express’s most ambitious undertaking to date.

It doesn’t exactly present anything new, but something about Higher Learning feels extremely fresh. Perhaps it lies in the instrumentation of “Orientation,” whose tinkling piano keys make way for hard drums and record scratches, dropping listeners firmly back into the early 90s. Perhaps it lies in “Fudge,” whose ingenious beat merges a flute with hard-driving drums to create some infectious instrumentation. Perhaps it’s in “Peace,” whose loud and brash rock guitar stands in stark contrast to the song’s title. Or perhaps it’s in “Revolution,” propelled forward by a military-march beat that bores itself into your head.

Although John Singleton’s film Higher Learning inspires the tape both directly and indirectly (“Bye Curious” calls to mind a certain sex scene involving one of the characters having an imagined threesome with a guy and a girl, while “Remy’s Song” is named after the misguided character in the movie), at times it seems as though Express doesn’t know whether he wants to be young Trey from Boyz N The Hood properly educating his classmates or Dap shouting out “WAKE UP!” at the end of School Daze, depositing gems of consciousness in each track. The most obvious of these is, of course, the anthemic “Revolution,” on which the rapper proclaims he’s “on that revolutionary sh*t” and “somebody gotta do it… and let a n*gga do some good for a f*ckin’ change!” The track toes the line between advocating for real revolution and calling out those who claim to be “revolutionary” but whose actions say otherwise. On “Orientation,” Express’s pronouncement that “there’s no peace in the Motherland” is as much a reference to America (for those literally born here) as it is the continent of Africa, chastising the problems in the classrooms and in the Congress. For those not so apt to raise their awareness, Express hasn’t forgotten about you. He creatively flips the concept of “Higher Learning,” the title track, by making it less about enlightenment and more about falling under the influence. And “Sex Scene,” Higher Learning’s slow jam of sorts, has Express doing his best R. Kelly and Drake impressions between verses.

Higher Learning’s features, though many in number, manage to complement Express without eclipsing him. Houston R&B crooner Jack Freeman lends his soulful voice to the hook on “Remy’s Song” and outro track, “What If (Unlearn).” Envy adds strong bars to “Peace,” Higher Learning’s lead single which plays upon the contradictions of seeking peace through violence (or a literal gun piece). Teih Laban’s guest verse and Dallas singer Bianca Rodriguez’s contributions to the hook of “Ruckus,” which calls to mind How To Be A Player’s “Miami,” make the song one of Higher Learning’s more memorable tracks (as does Boondocks’ character Uncle Ruckus being sampled at the song’s beginning).

On surface, Higher Learning is just damn good music with an occasional message. But within the lyrics, beneath Express’s gravelly delivery, one might catch the byproduct of years of honing talent and wading through the waters of creativity to find the sweet spot. And though that IS the goal, Higher Learning doesn’t necessarily have to manifest progress in its listeners –  if only because it’s an aural testament to Express’s own progression.