If you've shown even the faintest interest in local hip-hop in the past few years, you have come across Tef Poe. Maybe you've heard one of his many mixtapes, or watched him at last year's LouFest, or seen him on 106 & Park. And if you've read his regular column for RFT Music, you know Tef to be a searcher, a deep devotee of his art form, a cultural critic fond of real talk and an artist perennially preparing for his breakout moment. Cheer for the Villain, his first official album, has enough moments to bring new ears to Tef's music, and Atlanta-based producer DJ Burn One's clacking, shimmering production keeps tight focus on his vocal delivery. Tef Poe proves a gracious host, placing his spitfire flow alongside some of St. Louis' finest hip-hop and R&B performers: Mai Lee takes the hook on standout "True Soldiers," Aloha Mi'Sho and Indiana Rome add sweetness and grit to the gospel-marked "So Long" and Rockwell Knuckles contributes his low, sardonic voice to "Hog in the Lane." It's a rare hip-hop album with no flubs or half-assed guest spots; everyone shows up in top form.
Tef Poe's fierce love of hip-hop's roots doesn't keep him from putting the genre's cultural trappings under the microscope. Early track "All I Know" takes a simple, sing-songy hook ("All I know is smoking weed/All I know is getting high") and pitch-shifts the vocals down to a distorting crawl. This sets up the character critique that follows of an insular, almost nihilistic view of wasted youth that's neither preacher nor overly condescending. And that's really the stance Tef Poe works with on Cheer for the Villain — he and his roster of guests talk from an elevated state but remain stubbornly realistic. Note the skits that dot this 21-track album, which paint a grim picture of crime and its inevitable wages. The consequences of this lifestyle are not news to Tef Poe, who modeled these skits after (and dedicates the album to) his deceased cousin, Gregory. But rather than paint the album with a shade of melancholy, the loss and tension only seem to strengthen his resolve to make music in the face of a music industry that doesn't know exactly what to do with Midwest hip-hop. —Christian Schaeffer
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