L.T.Z. describes Sophisticated Slabs, his latest full-length, as "the most Tony album."
For the man behind the moniker, Tony LeSure, this is the ultimate goal of the LP--to fully convey as much of himself through hip-hop as possible. This doesn't just refer to his humorous, magnetic personality and taste in material possessions. On Slabs, L.T.Z. is an open book, airing out his insecurities and recounting life experiences both positive and negative. Though no stranger to vanity, the established Oklahoma City rapper has never been one to put up a facade--notable in and of itself given the genre--but here, he makes a point of it. Sophisticated Slabs is his most overtly autobiographical effort since 2013's Slow Narrations of L.T.Z.
The name and concept derive from the assorted rides that L.T.Z. has driven over the years, as the cover art indicates. Each one has memories to tell from his life, and he finds creative ways to share them. From puntastic track titles ("Benzjamin Buttons") to far-reaching metaphors ("Car Wash") to inventive narrative structures ("B92 Radio"), he tries to make the most of his 20 tracks to ensure no meat is left on the conceptual bone. With this framework and the always chill beats from return producers Chips and WoRm, he constructs a multi-dimensional self-portrait that benefits from repeat listens. It is indeed the most Tony album.
Truthfully, however, this alone is not what makes Slabs his best work to date. All of his projects have been very "Tony", so this one merely anchors down and commits to what he has already been doing. Similarly, his moderate flow and laid-back samples are in keeping with his discography so far. What actually sets this release apart are the fundamentals. Even at a sprawling 85 minutes--which will be addressed later--Slabs contains L.T.Z.'s most focused ideas and tightest execution. His rhymes are stronger, his wordplay is sharper, and his gift for presentation is channeled better than ever.
This improvement may be due in part to how L.T.Z. is extremely self-aware on this project. Between the warring conversational bookends of the album and his decision to have a radio DJ announce his artistic insecurities over a couple of track segues, there are nuggets of doubt planted all over the record. He frequently uses this self-awareness to his advantage, however.
It's clear that he has learned from prior releases, and it shows in a few ways. The most obvious is that he has repurposed a few existing hits—namely "73120" from Barcelona '92, "Hit Me On My Razr" from Singles Awareness Day II, and "SummerTime Pull-Up" from his four seasons singles series. These are presented as either sequels or reprises, with the same choruses but different beats and verses. It's an interesting approach, and it shows the rapper doubling down on his existing reputation. These are melodies that are already popular and memorable, and in doing this, he's literally repeating his past success. An argument can be made against recycling old material, but at least he's reusing his own music and not riding the coattails of others (with one minor exception where he sneaks in some "Hotline Bling" on "H.M.O.M.R. II", but that's different)
In this same vein, L.T.Z. brings back all of his signature references, like Green Apple Gatorade, the 7-Eleven on NW 122nd & Penn, and soul food restaurant Aja Bleu. Even cars, the central concept of the album, have been a reliable muse for years. Few topics are new here, but as a statement piece meant to reinforce L.T.Z. as an identifiable brand, to make "the most Tony album," Sophisticated Slabs succeeds.
There are a couple of exceptions to the tried-and-true approach. Most notably, "Pop Trunk" finds the rapper addressing racial tensions and police brutality against the album's most hard-hitting production. By giving a theoretical first-hand account of a fatal altercation, he brings a real sense of emotion to an issue that often gets pushed aside for political debate. This is new territory for his repertoire, and he pulls it off in spades.
It’s no secret that L.T.Z. is typically a clean rapper, which has made him a prime candidate for local music coverage in publications like The Oklahoman and the Oklahoma Gazette. It’s also true that his mentor, OKC hip-hop ambassador Jabee, has played a significant role in his success. However, one can’t simply write off his popularity to these factors, though they have certainly helped. Nobody is doing what L.T.Z. is doing. He made his own lane, it’s paying off, and at this point in his career, he has the adequate skills to substantiate it.
There are plenty of highlights on Slabs. The only critique is that L.T.Z.’s cadence could sometimes do a better job driving them home. "Steezed Up Beemer" finds a whopping eight different uses for the name "John", for example, and he does linger on each iteration. Perhaps, though, a more unique vocal inflection, a hype man, or something in the production could help them hit harder, since these land before rhymes rather than on them. Writing segments that take a minute to process is one of the great, unique aspects of hip-hop lyricism, but the artist has to be sure the listener knows where to look. L.T.Z. could potentially still learn a thing or two from the features he gets from on-point Frank Black, who is just one of many excellent collaborators on the record.
Of course, this is a nitpick, and it isn’t even always the case with Slabs. There are always tiny criticisms that can be found when a magnifying glass is used. "Used Up:dePRESSUREn" finds L.T.Z. rushing the beat a bit in his performance. "Parents Choice Awards" has a line about skin color that can be misinterpreted. At one point, he compares rapping over one’s lyrics to karaoke, as if rapping over a pre-made track with the vocal part removed is not more worthy of the comparison.
For each minor quibble, there is a much more memorable zing to be had. For instance, "Geo Prism Music" has a brilliant moment where L.T.Z. is on the phone with his friend Beetyman and literally stutters through his rap lines because of an attractive girl garnering his attention. This bit registers immediately to hilarious effect, and it's moments like this that make the record what it is, not little technicalities.
There is one exception, one big nitpick, and that's the runtime. In spite of its ambitions, Sophisticated Slabs is just too long.
L.T.Z. set out to make this a 20-track experience, so this isn't simply a matter of natural bloat. It was always going to be a long album. With great ambitions, though, come great challenges. Slabs is a beast, averaging close to four minutes per track with some indulging in the five to six minute territory, but that alone isn’t the problem. One of the producers, WoRm, made longer track lengths work on his 2016 release, Chicken and Waffles. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a long album, but it does pose the unique challenge of stimulating the listener for longer than the listener is accustomed.
The first half is excellent in this regard. It comes out of the gate with great hooks, beats, and perspectives that stay fresh at almost every turn. It’s the second half that settles down into more of a slow burn. There are a number of nice moments that happen here, but ultimately, it collectively causes the back end of the album to lose steam. Cuts like "H.M.O.M.R. II" attempt to pump some energy into the last few tracks, but they’re more like patchwork than the result of organic tracking.
Slabs is so long that three tracks had to be cut for the CD release, but that actually makes it the better edition. One of the tracks, "Tylenol PM", has such a nice idea and beat that it’s understandable to want to include it on the proper 20-track release. In the context of the album, though, it is not essential. That’s what filler is, and that’s how editing works.
There are a number of models that can accommodate for excess material. Release a B-sides mixtape. Make a deluxe edition. Take a cue from Drake and curate a "playlist." If Sophisticated Slabs were to take any of these ideas, it would not only make the core album a better full-length listen. It would add to its replay value while extending the scope of the project beyond just one album. As it is, though, Slabs is still really good.
Here’s the thing. For those of you still with me, how do you feel about having read over 15 paragraphs of music analysis? I am both writer and editor of this review, not unlike a musician. Don’t you think I could have cut this in half and gotten my ideas across just fine? I haven’t repeated myself. Everything I have said adds to a deeper understanding of what I like and dislike about the album, but how much of it was necessary? Is this not filler? Did I really need to spend all this time at the end just to say I thought the album was too long?
And be honest--how many of you skipped to the bottom to read my final thoughts? Isn’t this on par with skipping tracks on an album? Do you see my point? Well, alright, here is my verdict.
L.T.Z.’s biggest strength, even with his improved skills and ace material, continues to be himself. His instincts are unique, his personality is big, and he knows how to channel this into feel-good hip-hop like nobody else. Sophisticated Slabs, then, is not just the most Tony album. It is by extension the best L.T.Z. album, even at its indulgent runtime. If you have even a passing interest in hip-hop, don't let this one slip by you.