The Northeast Ohio hip-hop scene is as hazy and amorphous as the billowing cloud of marijuana smoke that is the lone common denominator among recent releases. Unlike most regions that have an identifiable sound, this area's rap underground is a wild pastiche of indie wordsmiths, mostly unconvincing thugs, and midwestern crunk.
Kent's Smoke Screen is a workmanlike MC with a confident, blunted flow. Unfortunately, he's a much better rapper than producer; his latest is undermined by shoddy, value-menu beats and a terrible mix. Still, this disc is a solid showcase for some promising MCs, including Uncle Dirty (who sounds like a distant cousin of Too Short), the hyperventilating Tai Kwan, and Caucasian cutup D. Lung, one of the fastest-rhyming white boys you're likely to hear.
Cleveland's CLO Records does a better job of showcasing its talent on Enter the Northcoast. Here, the production is a highlight, especially on Mr. Illdub's moody album opener "What City You Claim," with its gentle guitar and lulling synth, and Bino's "Who Want War," which starts as a chest-thumping a cappella workup before drifting into a vaguely Caribbean beat. Elsewhere, soul crooner Millian and the iron-lunged Lady T attest to the depth of CLO's roster.
Though he's not affiliated with a label yet, Cleveland's Drilla soon will be, if his self-released debut is any indication. The stonefaced MC sounds like Ohio's answer to rap's reigning mouth of the South, the metaphor-infatuated Ludacris. Like Luda, Drilla comes with loud, resonant rhymes that rumble like a fault line. "In my life I done hit more bumps than Braille books," he growls at one point over a sentimental hook. Look for his fortunes to improve any day now.
It may take a little more time for burly rhymer AUG to match Drilla, though he makes progress on his sophomore LP. A forceful, heavy-breathing MC, AUG rhymes over videogame snippets and babbling background vox. The beats occasionally have the chintzy sheen of a fake Rolex, though AUG has made clear headway in terms of production. "I'm never finished," he announces on "Feel No Shame." "I'm always getting stronger/Like Popeye eating spinach." Better help yourself to another serving, playa. -- Jason Bracelin