Nato Caliph 

Cipher Inside (F5 Records)


Cipher Inside takes backpacker hip-hop to its logical conclusion: Beginning with "Physics 720" and moving through lessons in "Applied Math 50" and "Political Science 380," Nato Caliph has come to impart his wisdom on global politics, local issues and race relations. Caliph's style of socially conscious hip-hop favors relaxed beats and slow, soulful samples. It's a method that allows him to unpack his guileless, tempered verses, which have a drowsy, monotone quality. His tracks won't pack the dancefloor, but Caliph's lyrics stick to the moral high ground and rely more on the message than the music.

"Try Win'n" is the album's most forceful track, with MF Grimm and MF Mez dropping in with spitfire verses which offset Caliph's relaxed flow. The track sets the tone for the second half of the album, where beats move to the front and Caliph brings a bit more vitriol and urgency to the lyrics. "Commencement Ceremony" collects all of Cipher Inside's themes — the importance of family, education and right living — while noting the divide between St. Louis' rap world and its underground hip-hop scene. By the end, it's clear that Nato Caliph would rather fight the good fight in the city's basement clubs than have the empty glamour of rap royalty.

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