“Respect the Skills” is a 21-track hip-hop album by Bay Area MC / Producer Duo Nord1kone (pronounced as Nordic One) and Lmt. Break. It is a body of work where both Nord1kone and Lmt. Break pay homage to the boom-bap genre with tight flows, clever wordplay, and seamless sample tossing. It is unapologetically radical from the dominant mainstream hip-hop sub-genres and sticks to its own identity that is carefully crafted by Nord1kone lyrics and Lmt. Break’s mesmerizing beat curation. All in all, Respect the Skills lives up to its name and I will share my thoughts on how it achieves this incredible feat.
The production of Respect the Skills uses sampling as its backbone with complementary record scratches and sometimes maximalist beats. A good example would be the track The Lab where Lmt. Break goes all out in using drums, vocal distortion, and background supporting samples. It is layered production in its finest form. Owing to the charisma of Nord1kone and the energy of El Da Sensei, there is not even a single moment where the beat overpowers the MCs. Moreover, I found the production in this album very refreshing and reminiscent of an era that new-age hip hop fans might find harder to access and appreciate. The conviction and dedication of the duo shines here as they are not afraid to look back at hip-hop’s earlier days and bring out the same kind of finesse to their work.
While an album can coast on great production and summon the beat aficionados, ultimately it lives and dies by its bars, content, and rhymes. Respect the Skills fulfills its promise in that regard. Nord1kone locks on whenever he jumps on a beat. I was fairly pleased by Smoke Signals where he raps over a boom-bap beat and, without wasting a single second, immediately jumps in the track with an aggressive verse. The track’s feature, The I.M.F lays down a meaty and graphic verse that leaves a lasting impression. Knock Knock hones in on Lmt. Break’s layered sampling coupled with Nord1kone’s tight nit verse where he gets up close and personal. There are a lot of places in this album where the MC shines a microscope on his roots and paints beautiful pictures using vivid imagery. The next track From the Syndicate is a good example of this. The first verse follows a galactic theme with vivid imagery. For me, it was like I was watching a sci-fi movie. Nord1kone will not wait for you to understand his vision, you just have to keep up with him. He respects the audience enough in that regard. The creativity being displayed here is top-tier and carries the flare of fine cinema.
One thing that deserves to be mentioned is the precise and surgical nature of Nord1kone’s bars and skills. He treats his verses like an exact science. A mad scientist providing finishing touches to his magnum opus. There were instances where I had to replay certain tracks to understand the allegories being portrayed. The Elements is one such example. Like a chemist, he uses mere words to draw examples of his struggles as basic elements and how they combine together as ingredients to make him who he is in the present moment. Mr. Mathematical was the track that proved my hypothesis, Nord1kone is the analytical rapper who has studied the game from the greats and honed his craft. Another standout was When I Bust: a dance of lyrical Kung-Fu that made me reflect on the explosiveness of Enter the Wu-Tang. There are instances where the listeners get a chance to breathe and take in the ambiance of the tracks. Interludes such as Mind Calibration and Deep Earth provide that kind of space. I did find the third interlude Like That to be a bit longer as it disrupted the flow of the album. Brick by Brick was the track that played right after and I thoroughly enjoyed its more laid-back production, melodic violin-centric beat, and Nord1kone’s fitting verse. The hooks elevate the enjoyability and replayability of the album. They serve as cool transitional moments where the Nord1kone can drop a second verse or invite the guest feature to spit bars. I especially enjoyed Die-Rek’s verse on I Double L Pt.2 where his raspy and grounded voice brought a certain rawness. His bar “getting out of hand like people born with six fingers” made me chuckle. Enter the Cypher was the culmination of all the Syndicate rappers coming and flexing their bars.
All in all, I enjoyed Respect the Skills. At the heart of the album, Nord1kone, and Lmt. Break are students of hip-hop who have spent time working on their skills, studied a bygone (but once mainstream) era of Hip-hop, and displayed their technical prowess throughout the album for all to see. There is a striking exactness to this album and within that exactness, one can see the hunger and drive to reach new heights. I have high hopes and expectations for the duo’s future albums. Do not end your 2022 without listening to Respect the Skills.