A member of the enormously promising Rhymesayers collective, Eyedea attracted considerable media attention when he won the 2000 Blaze Battle on HBO. While the Midwestern rapper's charisma, good looks, and Caucasian heritage would seem to make him a natural contender for Eminem's throne, Eyedea's esoteric lyrics pretty much ensure that he won't pop up on Total Request Live any time soon. As his Blaze Battle victory proves, Eyedea is no slouch when it comes to verbally humiliating substandard MCs, but if First Born is any indication, his foremost battles are philosophical and intellectual. Like fellow Rhymesayer Slug (of Atmosphere), Eyedea explores a distinctly Midwestern brand of American gothic, where Vietnam veterans relive the war in a perpetual loop, and where every adolescence is unhappy in its own unique way. But where Slug sweetens his neuroses with melodic, accessible beats and self-deprecating humor, Eyedea pushes his urgent, dense lyrics into darker, more abstract places, obsessing over madness, reality, and altered states of perception over spare, haunting beats and DJ Abilities' furious scratching. At their best, Eyedea's intelligence and endless philosophical wanderings point the way toward a cerebral, ambitious new style of hip-hop that emphasizes questions over answers, ambiguity over certainty, and self-expression over commercial concerns. At its worst, First Born feels like the hip-hop equivalent of being cornered at a party by a caffeinated undergraduate who won't shut up about this great philosophy class he's taking. The album's high-minded excursions into the realm of being and nothingness periodically lurch into navel-gazing self-parody, but Eyedea's passionate delivery and lyrical skills keep the disc grounded. With First Born, Eyedea and the Rhymesayers collective continue to rewrite hip-hop in their own iconoclastic image. The results may occasionally err on the side of pretension, but that's a small price to pay for an album so rich in ambition, ideas, and humanity.

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