Erick Sermon – Insomnia (April 23, 1996)

After EPMD decided to go their separate ways in 1993, Erick Sermon kept himself busy producing for others and with his own solo career. His first solo album, No Pressure, was a hot mess that even E would later poke fun at on the intro of its follow-up, Double Or Nothing. While Double Or Nothing was far from a masterpiece, it fared much better than its predecessor (you can read my complete thoughts on both albums by clicking here and here). One of the reasons DON sounded so much better than NP was the incorporation of more of his Def Squad friends and family. The Green-eyed bandit would build on that synergy for his next project, which would come in the form of the compilation album, Insomnia.

Insomnia loosely plays like a radio show mix on the faux radio station, 88.9 WFDS (an acronym for “Where From Dark Side”), hosted by Cherry Martinez (who was a radio DJ for Power 105.1 in New York at the time). E-Double would stay behind the boards for most of Insomnia, letting some of his already established Def Squad crew members shine on the mic, but he would also give a handful of newcomers a chance to prove themselves as well. Insomnia would produce three singles, make its way to number ten on the Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Charts and received positive reviews from the critics.

I haven’t listened to Insomnia in years, so let’s walk through it together and see if it keeps us awake.

Intro – The album opens with the lovely voice of Cherry Martinez, who welcomes the listener to Insomnia and introduces the first song of the evening.

Funkorama – If you’re going to make a compilation album it’s probably best that you start it off with a record from the strongest and most successful member in your crew. Redman (with a co-production credit going to Erick Sermon) creates a laidback instrumental for himself that sounds as peaceful as a cloudy day chillin’ at the lake, with just a touch of funk added to fill it out and make it a little edgy. Redman’s in full “Redman mode”, spittin’ witty and playful bars as he mildly wilds out over the track (I can understand why they chose to censor Red’s line about “bustin’ back at the boys in blue”, but I’m curious to why they felt they couldn’t let him say the year this song was recorded or at least punch the line and have him update it to ’96). Along with a well-placed Aaron Hall vocal snippet on the hook (taken from E-Double’s “Welcome” record off the Double Or Nothing album), Red also includes a clever Q-Tip vocal sample that references his name and takes care of Tribe Degrees of Separation for yet another post. This is a dope record and yet another exception to the rule that a hip-hop album should start with a song with crazy energy. Then again, Redman brings enough energy all by himself.

The Vibe – This song features the duo Xross Breed, comprised of Rockwilder (who is better known as the producer behind some of your favorite emcee’s records) and his partner in rhyme, Kewjo. Redman cooks up what he calls “cosmic funk” (and holds down hook duties), serving it hot to the fellas, as they each get off a verse. Thank God Rockwilder gave up rhyming to focus on producing, because neither he nor Kewjo sound that nice on the mic. At least Red’s moody funk mash up was enjoyable.

As The… – Erick builds this backdrop around strong drums and a warm melodic loop, as Passion uses it to rip shit up, delivering hardcore bars with her aggressive raspy vocal tone: “Who’s the next fool to step up and be the bravest? You wanna be courageous? I’ll get up in yo anus like an intravenous penis, Passion bringin’ thrillers, the lyrical killa, getting illa with the skilla.” This is one of the strongest records on Insomnia that once again left me thirsting to hear a solo album from Passion. Dammit, man.

Beez Like That (Sometimes) – After a quick check in from Cherry Martinez back at 88.9, Jamal and newcomer, Calif are paired up for this record. For years I thought this was a Jamal solo joint, as Calif’s voice, cadence and delivery sound very similar to Jamal’s, and both gentlemen spew generic, unimaginative and unbelievable gangsta bars on this one. E-Double chefs up a gulley backdrop with jazzy highlights, all built around an ill Weather Report loop (the same loop Havoc would use on “Live Nigga Rap” from Nas’ It Was Written album, that we’ll be discussing soon enough). It’s too bad that E couldn’t find stronger emcees to bless his dope instrumental.

It’s That HitInsomnia’s crown jewel comes very early in the evening in the form of this Keith Murray record. E hooks up a dope backdrop that brilliantly muddles the line between murky and melodic, as Keith brings his A-game, spittin’ superb bully raps: “I bugs the clubs, runnin’ with thugs, makin’ niggas bite the bullet and hug the slugs, ya whole genetics is pathetic, got me ready to set it, on a shot M1 type wetted, but instead I blow you buck-fifty cross the face, for tryna look hard in the first place, I need beer, and a lotta noise in my ear, and a rowdy atmosphere, to even think clear”. All of Keith’s profanity is censored on this record (which I’ll assume had everything to do with a sample clearance agreement), but at least they do it in a cool fashion, sprinkling breaking glass, sirens, gunshots and some random noise that sounds like a burp, over each of his curses. Keith punctuates the song with a simple but catchy hook, completing this masterpiece of a record.

Up Jump The Boogie – The Green-eyed bandit gets away from his normal funk-heavy production style and along with an assist from Sugarless aka Ty Fyffe, hooks up an enjoyable jazzy mid-tempo bop that sounds great and feels good. E-Double extends an invitation to The Wixtons (a duo comprised of Jah Boogie and Shugar Diamonds) to each spit a verse and a half, and while I wasn’t blown away by their performance, they didn’t completely stink up the place, either.

Caller’s Interlude – The instrumental from Redman’s “Tonight’s Da Night” plays, while Cherry Martinez takes a few phone calls from people to give their shoutouts live on the radio, which includes calls from a chick named Debbie, an angry dude going by Mr. “I don’t wanna hear it” (whose upset about the amount of cursing being played on the radio…Cherry’s response to the grumpy chump was pretty comical), Redman and the captain of the ship, Erick Sermon. This interlude ends with Cherry introducing the next song…

I Feel It – As Cherry mentions on the previous interlude, you might remember LOD (an acronym for Legion of Doom) from their cameo on their mentor, Keith Murray’s debut album (see “Take It To The Streetz” from his The Most Beautifulest Thing In This World album). Ron Jay and 50 Grand get a chance to shine on their own record this time around, but they squander the opportunity, sounding like little Keith Murray wannabees with subpar bars. E-Double must have not been feeling them either, since he gives them one of his generic stock funk instrumentals to fumble and stumble over.

On The Regular – This one features E’s little sister, Big Kim (who spit a verse on the “In The Studio” skit on Double Or Nothing) and her partner, T-Man, collectively known simply as, Duo. E hooks up a solid funk bop for Kim and T to get loose on and they spit acceptable bars over it. I wasn’t blown away by this record, but it’s decent enough to make me interested in hearing more from Duo.

Fear – Straight out the west coast, Tommy Gunn gets a chance to rep for Los Angeles. E blesses Tommy with a monster muffled and muddy funk groove mixed with the perfect subtle splash of sturdy horns, that he uses to talk about murder, guns, weed, Hennessy and fear. Tommy’s rhymes are decent, but E’s bangin’ backdrop steals all the attention. Sadly, Tommy Gunn would pass away before Insomnia was released, as E dedicates the album to his memory in the liner notes. This song is followed by one last Cherry Martinez skit that introduces the next song…

Ready For War – E serves up what might be his shittiest instrumental of all time, which is perfect for his featured guest, Domo, who sounds like a less-talented Jamal and spits shitty bars to match it.

Reign – Fittingly, the last song of the night features The Green-eyed Bandit going dolo, spitting sharp bars over a funked-out soulful instrumental. I’d be willing to bet that Quincy Jones’ “The Dude” is one of E’s favorite records, as he once again sings a portion of it at the end of this song (the first time we heard him sang it was at the beginning of “In The Heat” from Double Or Nothing). Nevertheless, this record is hot and makes for a great ending to Insomnia.

I’ll admit, through the years I’ve been critical of Erick Sermon’s solo musical output. Most of my complaints comes from his seemingly overabundance of uninspired funk instrumentals that lack the heart and soul of the production he and Parrish Smith cooked up together as EPMD. Slowly but surely, E-Double is changing my perception. As I mentioned at the top of this post, Double Or Nothing was decent, but much better than his dismal debut album, No Pressure. E-Double out does both of those projects with Insomnia.

With his focus mainly on production, Erick (along with a few assists) is able to craft a balanced batch of smooth, hard and rugged instrumentals with a funk backbone, and only misses on two of Insomnia’s eleven tracks. While the production on Insomnia strives, the emceeing struggles to stay afloat. E-Double, Redman, Keith Murray and Passion all pull their individual lyrical weight, but the rest of E’s guests offer up performances that range from decent to downright horrible. Even with the overall middling output from his guests, Insomnia is still a solid album that’s given me a restored faith in Erick Sermon’s solo career. Fingers crossed.

-Deedub

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