Walking through the wide alley beside St. Andrews after the show, my brother struck up a conversation with two of the emcees from The Breakfast Club. One of them was Hodge Podge, now called Big Tone, and the other was a shorter, quiet guy with dreads called Elzhi.
A couple months later, my sister Anna and I were standing in line waiting to see Phife and Xzibit perform and Elzhi was standing right behind us. He and I got to talking, and our conversation carried on for the rest of the night. Over the next couple of months he would call me at random times and ask for an opinion on a track he had just recorded. I didn't know what it was then, but he was playing me the songs that would become Out of Focus, his now legendary, unreleased EP.
Honestly, hearing these songs only once and through a phone didn't do them much justice. I remember trying my best to hear his lyrics over the static and feedback as the snare drums cracked through the headset of our cheap phone. But even under these circumstances, I knew that I was hearing something special.
The following analysis is about as unbiased as I can be.
10 years ago, a young emcee from Detroit got together with a small selection of unknown collaborators and created a masterful collection of songs that would never see the presentation or release that it deserves. The artist is eLZhi, the talented lyricist from the group Slum Village, and the songs are found on his underground debut, The Out of Focus EP.
After making appearances on songs with Binary Star, The Breakfast Club, Hodge Podge and others, eLZhi headed into the studio with Detroit hip-hop guru DJ Houseshoes to work on his solo project. After writing and recording a wide variety of songs, selecting a track list, designing and printing labels, and acquiring blank cassettes on which to print the music, eLZhi decided at the last minute to abandon the project. The songs remain unfinished and unmixed and the EP was never completed.
The raw material, however, is there. The beats, rhymes, and concepts that form Out of Focus are sufficient to say that, had eLZhi completed his vision and given his debut the release it deserves, it would be regarded as one of the best hip-hop debuts of all time.
The Track List:
Broken Frames (Intro)
Interlude (feat. Dwele)
S.A.R.A.H. (Someone As Real As Her feat. Dwele)
The Big F.U.
Where it All Begins (feat. Hodge Podge)
[It should be mentioned that when eLZhi finally allowed friends to have copies of this material on CD (thus spawning a leak), three additional songs were included on the disc. The first track commonly referred to as "Horny" appears as track number 4, following "MuSick." The remaining 2, "Choose" and "What I Am" appear following the 2nd Interlude, prior to "The Big F.U."]
Exclusively considering eLZhi's intended track list, the EP is a remarkably crafted set of songs. Thematically consistent, lyrically poignant, and conceptually diverse, Out of Focus is the rare hip-hop record that provides a listener with a fully realized, multi-faceted narrator. The genius of the project is not limited to the emcee's gift for words, but also the simple honesty of his character that is unafraid to share all of himself with his audience.
The spoken word intro performed by Theory 13, "Broken Frames," combines with the autobiographical "Scattered Pictures" to open the album. In all honesty, I feel the inclusion of "Broken Frames" as an intro is eLZhi's only misstep on the project. It succeeds in introducing the motif of obscured vision, which I'll discuss in a moment, but it fails in the sense that the recited poetry simply cannot compete with eLZhi's lyricism. Instead, the single, epic verse of "Scattered Pictures" would be the more powerful opening, as he raps:
...My feelings inside become a sentence
Snatch a thought from a black cloud
That hung a distance
And got good at it
Just a skinny black kid with thick glasses
And book baggage
And a torn jacket
But lookin' back, I can hear 'em crackin' jokes again
It's hard to see the future with a cracked lens and broken frames
The titular idea of being "Out of Focus" is one that eLZhi revisits throughout the record. Here, he concludes his verse with a single line that seems to be the guiding force behind the selection of songs that follows.
The next track, "MuSick," finds eLZhi lamenting on the state of popular hip-hop music. "We at the point of thinkin' somethin' is hype when it's just down right decent," he raps as he viciously attacks an ominous beat by DJ Houseshoes. On the surface, "MuSick" seems like a relatively basic song. At the end of the 90's, eLZhi wasn't exactly swimming in uncharted waters by writing a song about the sad state of the art form, so he constructs his complicated rhyme patterns and similes to compensate for his relatively unoriginal subject matter and allows his skill as a wordsmith to distinguish him from his less talented peers. What fascinates me most about "MuSick," however, is how the line I quoted above fits within the thematic framework of obscured vision.
Basically, the driving point behind "MuSick" is to say that the quality of hip-hop music has gotten so bad that songs that are merely good are misperceived as being great. The malfunction is one of perception; what we understand to be true is actually false. In the case of "MuSick" it is aural sensation, elsewhere it is vision. Nevertheless, the principle of apprehending inaccuracies is consistent. So while eLZhi may be completely unaware of the connection I draw between his "Out of Focus" concept and the lyrics to "MuSick," they are still undoubtedly related.
Sandwiched between a vibed-out segue and the end of side one, "S.A.R.A.H.," eLZhi's exhortation on unrequited love, is the clear centerpiece of Out of Focus. Rhyming over a gentle guitar, eLZhi tells a story about a having a crush on a young woman who he hasn't approached.
Her aura's a radiant light
Very fly like takin' a flight
On a plane, she's not plane
From a distance I've admired her
Feeling like the man she wants, I'm far from
But jet tryin' to get close...
...It's a cold cold world
I steady put myself out there
Wearin' it thin
Eventually becoming lovesick
Her personality sweet as her fragrance
My mouth shuts speakin in body language
I shift to the corner
Where the eyes, shift to the corner
Watchin' these clowns approach her...
Taken on the surface, "S.A.R.A.H." can easily appear as the EP's "girl song," and be lumped into a conventional category of hip-hop songs. Generally speaking, "girl songs" often find the emcee either confessing his love to an unnamed woman, or bragging to women about his sexual abilities. ("The Light" by Common, "Electric Relaxation" by A Tribe Called Quest) And while eLZhi's song easily falls into the category, the vulnerability he expresses by describing his inability to approach her is a rare thing. In a genre so often associated with bragging and womanizing, suggesting that a woman would want someone else, or that he is somehow inadequate, eLZhi is dramatically going against the grain.
Another interesting aspect to eLZhi's approach to writing "S.A.R.A.H." is the role he takes as observer. His relationship to "Sarah" is one of admiring her from a distance and hoping for them to get together in the future. While the idea of being "Out of Focus" can be associated in a relatively abstract way to being an observer (as it is on "MuSick" with eLZhi's relationship to hip-hop music), on "S.A.R.A.H." it is more closely related to eLZhi's perception of the future.
Returning for a moment to the final line of "Scattered Pictures," "it's hard to see the future with a cracked lens and broken frames," where eLZhi defines the idea of being "Out of Focus" as a difficulty to see where he is going. The same concept is true on "S.A.R.A.H.," as the general concept of the track echoes the idea of being unclear about where he is headed. While eLZhi clearly expresses the way he feels about this young woman, her feelings are never mentioned, imagined or assumed. eLZhi devotes numerous lines in his verses to fantasizing about a future relationship with "Sarah," but never frames them as anything more than hope.
As the second side begins, the idea of lacking clarity on the future is examined in an interlude where eLZhi has a conversation with his father, who would rather he pursue something more practical than a rap career. "The Big F.U." immediately follows, and, like "MuSick," is one of the EP's more aggressive tracks.
"The Big F.U." is an odd song relative to its neighbors on The Out of Focus EP, but it is also completely essential, as eLZhi sends a message to a few local emcees who got on his bad side. Without going into the details of ten-year-old drama, the song remains timeless in the sense that it is an example of how so-called-friends back bite and become enemies. "What's really messed up is that I thought you was cool / That ain't nothin' friends would do," Elzhi spits at the end of the first verse. So while the song is undeniably speaking to specific people regarding actual events, the principle that eLZhi focuses on is the one where his understanding of friendship is violated.
"Boomerang Slang" is probably the most well known song to come from the Out of Focus sessions. One of the most impressive demonstrations of eLZhi's raw lyricism, it finds the young emcee weaving a litany of loosely related narratives into an intricate canvas that captures his surroundings. Rhyming over one of DJ Houseshoes' most memorable beats, the song was regarded as an instant classic by those who were close to the ambitious emcee and had the unique pleasure of hearing the track.
As he did on "S.A.R.A.H.," eLZhi plays the role of observer, this time, however, he refrains from placing himself into the environment until the second verse, and remains separate from the people and events he describes. Seemingly distinct from the concept of being "Out of Focus," "Boomerang Slang" is a vivid and chilling portrayal of street life. Punctuating the song with his final line, El' raps, "It seems to me that cats rather rest in peace instead of keepin' it." This, of course, clarifies the unifying concept of the song, as every character El' describes is someone with misguided priorities. Whether it's the preacher who "knows the Bible but don't know Jesus," or the woman who lives a fast life style despite the health of her unborn child, everyone populating the song is unable to focus on what is right.
"When I wrote this I was out of focus / vision blurred from the tears" El' raps on "Where it All Begins," the final track on Out of Focus. A tribute to Bugz, a Detroit emcee who tragically lost his life too early, the song is a collaboration with fellow Breakfast Club emcee Hodge Podge (now called Big Tone). Clearly, this is where the EP gets its title, as El' uses the image of his "vision blurred from the tears" as a metaphor for the sudden lack of clarity that happens when one is afflicted with something devastating. The song is one of the highlights of Out of Focus and is a fitting closer for this stunning collection of songs.
Throughout the record, eLZhi, whether consciously or not, is examining the discrepancy between perception and reality. Or, put another way, he is looking at the many ways his world is "Out of Focus." On "Scattered Pictures," he tells his life story, emphasizing the difference between what should have happened and what did happen. "And they keep tellin' me it's going to be okay / But it transforms to lies" he raps, outlining the countless tragic turns his early life took. On "MuSick," eLZhi draws a distinction between the music that people should be making and what is actually being produced. On "The Big F.U." he draws a similar distinction between friends and back biters. These discrepancies are not the driving concepts behind these songs, of course, but subtle aspects to each of them that, perhaps serendipitously, unify the album.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Out of Focus is the sheer amount of himself eLZhi seems willing to share with his audience. "Scattered Pictures" touches on a number of deeply personal moments from the emcee's childhood. "S.A.R.A.H.," "The Big F.U." and "Where it All Begins" are all based on episodes from his life, and even the Interlude that opens side 2 is inspired by El's actual relationship with his father. The remaining songs, "MuSick" and "Boomerang Slang," both touching on relatively conventional hip-hop topics, are the songs on which eLZhi chooses to brandish his raw skill as an emcee. The result is a well balanced mixture of concept, talent, and empathy that few records by established veterans are able to achieve.
In many ways, the record sounds naive today, as if eLZhi was unable to write about anything but himself. The single moment of pretense, the intro performed by Theory 13, is the only track on the EP that seems forced (as I write this I realize I make it sound worse than it actually is), mostly because it is the only contribution to the album that isn't coming directly from eLZhi himself. Every other song, however, gives a clear and precise image of a different aspect of eLZhi's character. That he chooses to write "S.A.R.A.H." instead of a more conventional song about sleeping with multitudes of women, that he writes an honest and pointed tribute to his friend, and that he opens the album with a detailed and revealing autobiography reveals an artist in the purest sense of the word. In 1998, eLZhi only knew how to be himself. Granted, in the 11 years that have elapsed since recording this EP eLZhi has grown as an artist, but Out of Focus remains his timeless masterpiece.
I had known Elzhi for over a year before he finally gave me and a few other of our friends copies of this material on CD. I had heard some of the songs a few times. Nick Speed had played me "Boomerang Slang" and "Where it All Begins" a few times, but I had never heard the album in its entirety.
While I had already seen him perform and heard some of his music when we met, I got to know Elzhi outside the context of his music before really becoming his fan. I knew that he was an emcee, and I knew he was dope, but the true talent and gifted insight into the art of emceeing was a mystery to me.
Although, there was one occasion when we were going to a drive through joint with a few friends. Elzhi got in my car and asked if I had any beats. I popped in a cassette of DJ Premier instrumentals and he proceeded to freestyle for the duration of the car ride. Now, this was a notoriously slow Burger King we went to, and he never stopped rhyming. Even when a homeless man approached the car, El' told him to go away within the context of his rhyme. When it was time to order, El's food request was part of his verse. And when I almost ran over a jay-walking pedestrian, El' told him to get the hell out of the way without missing the beat. This may sound impressive on its own, but let me just add, for anyone who hasn't heard Elzhi come off the head, that when he freestyles he still rhymes with creative and unique patterns. When I turned off the car I knew that the man in my passenger seat was one of the most gifted rappers alive.
When I got my own copy of Out of Focus I was blown away. After a while, however, I became frustrated - why did he hold back? Why didn't he release it? Elzhi's answers always seemed to deflect the question rather than address it, but I think part of it was that he was concerned that people wouldn't respond to it the way he hoped and that with so much of himself revealed in these songs, the risk was too great.
A couple of years later, Elzhi performed a rare solo show at a small club outside of Detroit. It was one of the best performances I've ever seen, and something I still talk about with my friends who were there. Shortly afterward, El' started recording with Slum Village.
In 2004, Elzhi released Witness My Growth, a mix-CD of material that outlined his pre-Slum, solo career. In December of that year, Elzhi performed an album release show at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. Fans who purchased the CD at the show were given copies of Out of Focus on cassette, finally putting those blank cassettes and unfolded covers to use. (Anyone who claims to have a copy of this tape released in 1998 is actually fronting, and posing the 2004 release as being genuine. And yes, the copyright date on the 2004 tape says 1998.)
In 2008, Elzhi released his solo album, The Preface, which I whole heartedly urge everyone to run out and buy twice.