Tanya Morgan – Moonlighting

Tanya Morgan - Moonlighting Artist: Tanya Morgan
Album: Moonlighting
Label: Loud Minority Music
Rating: 4/5

Hip-hop group Tanya Morgan is a cohesive, talented, and clever group wrapped inside a gimmick, but their debut full-length, Moonlighting, proves they are anything but gimmicky. Instead, the “gimmick” – that they are a) a hip-hop group of three male MCs who have chosen a name that unsuspecting audiences might assume to be a solo R&B crooner/diva, and b) that they are “newest-school” in that they formed over the internet – proves fodder for the wit prevalent throughout the album. This is classic, feel-good hip-hop that transcends generation. Tanya Morgan is classic in that they have solid, catchy beats, rhyme-heavy lyrics, utilize braggadocio never to the point of annoyance, and speak on easily-relatable concepts taken from everyday life. The songs are varied enough that they keep one listening, but cohesive enough that it’s clear the group had in mind constructing an album, rather than a catalogue of songs, for their sophomore effort.

The group – composed of Ilyas, Donwill, and Von Pea – have similar enough rhyming styles that it makes sense that they might have found themselves in the internet. (Ilyas and Donwill hail from Brooklyn, while producer/MC Von Pea and sometimes producer Brickbeats are based in Cininatti.) As the world-wide web continues to shed itself of its dorky, inorganic reputation, more groups will probably be founded this way, and Tanya Morgan might one day be considered a pioneer of that approach along with the Foreign Exchange. (Unsurprisingly, Von Pea contributed to Foreign Exchange’s Connected, most noticeably on the vocals for that album’s “Von Sees.”) But while Foreign Exchange was reliably marketable due to Phonte’s established reputation, Tanya Morgan is the product of three thirsty emcees who recognized each other’s unrealized potential as a starting-off point.

The result – Moonlighting – is stunning enough to believe that forming a group this way is either a viable method, or that Tanya Morgan is a singular, exceptional success. The group is within their rights in referencing Reflection Eternal (“The last time Brooklyn and Cincinnati got together a classic was made”) as well as De La Soul is Dead. The latter is evoked as the album’s skits consist of a tape of Tanya Morgan passes between a host of characters trying to get rid of it. De La is more an intellectual forebear to the group than Foreign Exchange, as the songs often tinge of sadness, but never lose sight that hip-hop should be fun at heart. Like De La, all the stories could have really happened, and the fantasies are kept at a minimum. Also similar to De La, the lyrical styles are similar enough that a close listen is often necessary to determine who’s talking, and the styles used by all three emcees are conversational – the rhyming is so consistent and understated that it seems natural and never overwrought.

Apparently, some critics consider the group’s similarity in rhyming skills to be so extreme as to make the different MCs indistinguishable. This is a half-truth at best. Ilyas and Donwill – who had formed their own group Ilwill before this project – have similar styles, but both are distinctly different than Von Pea’s. Von Pea has a swagger reminiscent of Fabolous, and that’s not a dis – his style is different enough and more diverse, and Fabolous is pretty underrated as far as radio-playing MCs go (even though he was, oddly, a target of Von Pea’s on a dis track on Sunlighting, Tanya Morgan’s mixtape-style warm-up to Moonlighting). Both Von Pea and Fabolous rhyme on the slow side, but only use that to accentuate their seven-syllable rhyme patterns or four-syllable-rhyming punch lines. All three emcees employ complex inner rhymes. Ilyas and Donwill change their tones and patterns enough to be hard to distinguish, but Ilyas uses a hard Brooklyn style while Donwill’s voice is a little higher and more readily oscillates between tones. It’s a compliment to the group that they gel so well that their voices can be sometimes confused.

That listeners might be confused about who’s who on the album is one of the sources of humor on the album. Von Pea, Donwill, and Ilyas are not afraid to make fun of each other, let alone themselves. On “Ode to Tanya” the three of them give each other a good dose of the dozens in attempting to woo the album’s supposed namesake, and on “Just Cause I Got Locks,” Ilyas (I think) adopts a patois to a reggae beat to make fun of his own hair, while simultaneously expressing his annoyance at those who judge him for it. “Rough U Up” has the three MCs good-naturedly poking fun at Lil Jon and crunk, and the roughneck lyrics only accentuate the joke; it’s out of place, but funny nonetheless.

Regardless of the tinges sadness and self-deprecation, most of the themes on Moonlighting revolve around showing, proving, and punchlines, and these three are quite good at it. “The Warm Up,” “Paper Thin,” “We Be,” “Hooks,” “Hahaha,” “We Right Here,” and “We Bad!” are all of this ilk, as Tanya Morgan justifies themselves as a force to all comers. And the production on the album is a force as well – strong and catchy, but minimalist and designed to augment the vocals rather than supplant them, a pitfall in these golden days of the producer. Pronounced drums, slick guitar loops, well-placed horns and keyboards, solid bass, and several smooth vocal samples populate the best tracks on Moonlighting, and perfectly complement the rhyme styles. The first three songs – “The Warm Up,” “Paper Thin,” and “We Be” – are production powerhouses, and easily hook in any listener to the rest of the album.

And hooked most listeners will likely be. This is an all-around solid album, and shows enough promise that, if properly marketed, should have listeners eagerly waiting for the next release or concert date.

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