Most of you probably know Skillz (formerly known as Mad Skillz) as the rapper who invented the year end “rap-up”, where he literally recaps the previous year in the form of a rap song. It’s an annual tradition he’s held down for almost two decades now (even though Uncle Murda ganked his idea years ago and started doing it better than the concept’s inventor…but that’s neither here nor there.), and he claims 2021’s rap-up will be his last, but he’s also said that in previous years. But before Skillz became known as the “rap-up” rapper, the Virginia native became regionally known for his freestyle ability, which would eventually lead to him signing with Big Beat/Atlantic, where he would release his debut album, From Where??? In 1996.
From Where??? would feature production from some heavy hitters, including Jay Dee, The Beatnuts, Buckwild, Large Professor and DJ Clark Kent. But despite the impressive producer list, From Where??? would only yield a couple of mildly successful singles and the album would produce dismal sells numbers, which I’m sure had something to do with why From Where?? would be Skillz first and last album on Atlantic. In hindsight, I’m sure Skillz and Atlantic regret releasing From Where??? the same day as All Eyez On Me and The Score.
I found a used cd copy of From Where??? several years ago and bought on the strength of one of my homeboy’s excitement over it back in the day (what up, Ray?). I’ve heard a few of the songs but have never listened to the album from beginning to end until now. Let’s see how this goes.
From Where??? Intro – The album begins with Skillz and his homie, Lonnie B freestyling in a cipher, and the onlooking crowd is so blown away by Skillz rhymes that they swear he’s from New York. After the crowd guesses a couple of incorrect boroughs, Skillz eventually lets them know that he’s from Virginia, thus explaining the album title and concept.
It’s Goin’ Down – The late great J Dilla gets his first of two production credits of the evening, as he slides Skillz a chill-melodic canvas that he uses to paint with his humorous punchlines, similes and metaphors. I was hoping for something with a little more energy to kick things off, but it’s still a passable record.
The Nod Factor – This was the album’s lead single. The Beatnuts loop up Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Superman Lover” for the backdrop, and as many times as this loop has been sampled throughout the history of hip-hop, this may be the first time I didn’t like it. Something about the Beatnut’s flippage of it sounds boring and lazy over the scare drumbeat, and Skillz’ dull monotone flow only makes matters worse. There is absolutely nothing about this track that made me want to nod my head in ’96 or today.
VA. In The House – Now this is more like it. Buckwild cooks up an airy soulful groove for Skillz to “represent VA the right way”. Virginia can be proud of their son on this one, as he does a serviceable job, but Buckwild’s dope production work is the heart, soul and driving force behind this record.
Tongues Of The Next Shit – Skillz is joined by his homie, Kalonji The Immortal on this duet, as the two take turns doing their best to impress the listener with witty punchlines and clever wordplay (I literally, chuckle every time I hear Kalonji spit “My superpowers catch wreck, I’m mixing up ill styles like interracial sex”). Skillz also gets into his producer bag for this one and lays down a creamy instrumental for the duo to get their shit off over, and they both do a serviceable job.
Doin’ Time In The Cypha – Skillz pays homage to one of the forgotten tenets and best training techniques for emcees: the cypha. Buckwild delivers again with a bassy backdrop, laced with haunting chopped and screwed-esque angelic voices, while our host describes the inner workings of the cypha and taps a dope Masta Ace line for the hook. This was brilliant, and easily my favorite song on From Where???
Tip Of The Tongue – Nick Wiz (whose name I first became familiar with for his work on Miilkbone’s Da Miilkrate album, and I still can’t believe how freely the milk-tone rapper dropped the “N” word on multiple occasions and nobody, not even his Naughty By Nature neighbors (Kay Gee even produced a couple of tracks on that album), called him out on it. But I digress) slides Skillz a dark and moody instrumental, and our host adapts an aggressive vocal tone, as he, once again, tries to impress the listener with comical one-liners. On the song’s final bar, Skillz says “My shit’s tighter than five virgins in a Volkswagen”, which I found corny, but Skillz apparently thought it was so clever that he doubles down and repeats it as the song fades out, as if to pat himself on the back for coming up with something so “witty.” How embarrassing.
Extra Abstract Skillz – Large Professor and Q-Tip stop by to jump on this track with our host (Tribe Degrees of Separation: check). Extra P not only spits the song’s opening verse (which ends up being the hottest verse of the whole song and reminded me that he may be the best producer on the mic (sorry, Diamond D)), but also provides the heat that he and his comrades spit on as well. Skillz sounds out of his league rhyming next to Extra P and Q-Tip, and his second verse gets embarrassingly sloppy at certain points. Even with the corny song title and Skillz’ amatuer performance this was still enjoyable, thanks to a strong Queens representation.
WMAD (Interlude) – Useless interlude to set up the next song…
Get Your Groove On – Buckwild creates a laidback jazzy groove for our host, who essentially makes this a party record, as he crafts his verses to describe a night out at a club, and brings in Khim Davis to sing the hook, which was an obvious attempt at making the record more appealing to his non-existing female fanbase. Skillz’ bars are decent, but the instrumental is the true star of this one. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an instrumental that sampled Kool & The Gang’s “Summer Madness” that I didn’t like.
The Jam – J Dilla gets his second and final production credit of the night, building this one around a melodic and spooky vocal loop that I enjoyed, but the snapping drums didn’t sound great underneath it. Skillz continues to force feed us punchlines, and he spits his most questionable bar of the evening: “Like last November, when your man got dismembered, it was me, I ate his meat, and it lasted to December.” Pause. I can’t believe his mans didn’t call him out on that line.
Move Ya Body – This was the second single released from From Where??? The legendary DJ Clark Kent hooks up a track that sounds like something Trackmasters or L.E.S. would have made, which is probably why it reminds me of the instrumental from AZ’s “Sugar Hill”. For the first time tonight, Skillz sounds more focused on his flow and delivery than his wordplay, which was a welcomed change of pace. This record feels more polished than the rest of the album and sounds like a blatant attempt at a crossover hit. Needless to say, the plan didn’t work, but it’s still a decent record.
Street Rules – Over a melancholic backdrop, Skillz gets off a three-verse PSA warning the listener about the dangers of getting wrapped up in the cold and callous street life. Several rappers have made this same type of record with better results, but I still enjoyed Shawn J. Period’s moody production work.
All In It – Speaking of Shawn J. Period, he comes right back and blesses Skillz with this quiet storm instrumental that Skillz claims is as “Pretty as Chante Moore” (if you know, you know. If not, do your Googles). Skillz’ rhymes were decent, the hook is corny (although I did appreciate the part that samples a portion of one of my favorite Guru lines), and the instrumental was pleasant, even though it’s borderline boring.
Unseen World – Don’t let the mystical song title fool you. This ain’t nothing but a cipher session with Skillz and his crew, collectively known as The Supafriendz. Ez Elpee creates a soulfully airy atmosphere, as Lonnie B, Kalonji, Mindbenda, Lil Roc and Javon The Medieval spit verses along with our host, and his guests all sound way more entertaining on the mic than he does (Did he really think “I want more G’s than a girl named Gigi gaggin’ on some gin and garlic glue” was a dope line? Smh). This was dope and left me interested in what a Supafriendz album may have sounded like.
Inherit The World – Skillz closes From Where??? with a storyline that has him coming from the perspective of a monster emcee (both figuratively and literally), known as the Body Snatchin’ Dread. Apparently, this monster emcee’s rhymes were so potent that they’ve devoured the world and everyone and everything in it, leaving him lonely and full of regret: “Nothin’ to look forward to, day after day, so why write rhymes-who’s gonna hear what I have to say? And if I do, who’s gonna appreciate it? Humanity terminated, I’m alone and I hate it.” It’s not a great storyline, but kudos to Skillz for trying something different. I love the beautiful loop that Shawn J laced the instrumental with, and the Busta Rhymes vocal sample in the hook was a nice added touch.
On From Where???, Skillz seems so focused on spitting witty bars from “Metaphor Ave” and “Punchline Metropolis” that he completely overlooks how his rhymes are delivered; and as they say: it’s not what you say, but how you say it. But not only does Skillz’ flow lack personality and sound sloppy, a large chunk of his metaphors and punchlines sound forced, over the top and downright corny. On the flip side, Skillz has a great ear for instrumentals, as his beat selection on From Where??? is damn near flawless (with the “The Nod Factor” being the exception). So, even when his haphazard flow makes you cringe and his embarrassingly bad punchlines leave you shaking your head in disbelief, you can still enjoy the music that backs him.