Mello Music Group - Omakase

After a decade-and-a-half of sustaining classic hip-hop and soul traditions and expanding them into the next generation, MMG has built a reputation as one of the last dependable bastions of quality. Its latest label compilation, Omakase, plays into the idea commonly found in the finest sushi restaurants: trust the chef. When you sit down at the bar, you don’t need to wrack your brain about what to order; you can put your faith that the freshest and best cuts will wind up on your plate.

With Omakase, MMG carefully balances the brilliance of their past with a boundary-pushing vision of its future. Familiar mainstays appear like Apollo Brown, Raheem DeVaughn, Marlowe (L’Orange & Solemn Brigham), Namir Blade, Denmark Vessey, Nolan, and Stalley. But there are also neck-swiveling heaters and occult hymns from other rising talents of the underground like YUNGMORPHEUS, Fatboi Sharif, and Fly Anakin. While the legendary Danny Brown incinerates 16-bars on an all-city burner alongside his fellow Detroit native, Paradime – the latest MMG signee.

Unlike most label anthologies that are little more than a scattered collection of bonus tracks, Omakase represents the culmination of a journey. Once pandemic restrictions were lifted, the label chief Mello hit the road, visiting different artists and cities in search of inspirations to stretch the parameters of the label’s possibilities. In each city, Mello went crate-digging, hit underground shows, and ate a few exquisite meals from Michelin-starred sushi chefs. The odyssey took him from Austin to Detroit, San Francisco to L.A. Miami to Phoenix – chasing eclectic sounds and rare wax, linking with artists, and attending shows for everyone from Alfa Mist to Pale Jay, Bobby Oroza to Kamasi Washington.

Over the course of these travels, Mello adopted “Omakase Everything” as a mantra, based on the belief that trusting others to show you their best is inherently a good idea. The concept immediately paid dividends on an Austin trip to catch the funk fusionist, Quantic. During the subsequent record shop trip, Mello discovered local rap group, Magna Carda, whose jazz-tinted, “Six Ring Feeling” recalls a dream scenario of Lauryn Hill fronting Slum Village. A spontaneous trip to San Francisco to witness Kamaal Williams’ performance at the Academy of Science gave birth to the eight-minute astral jazz saga, “Planetarium Funk Drill” and an instrumental beat titled after the location of their meeting.

What makes the anthology special is the sense of the unexpected. There are the introspective blasts of serrated hip-hop that you expect from MMG. On “Last Reserve,” Solemn Brigham and L’Orange blend slippery agile modern cadences with a hypnotic beat that sounds like a futuristic update of what Premier did on the Group Home record. While “G Body With Blades” finds Stalley writing his legacy on the pavement with blood, sweat, and effortless style.

But there are adventurous expeditions into jazz, soul, funk and R&B as well. In the wake of the heartstring-tugging Lovesick, DeVaughn and Brown reunite for “Roll Up,” a dark room and sandalwood seduction that could raise the birth rate all on its own. Perhaps best known for his collaborations with Georgia Muldrow and Quelle Chris, the folk-indebted instrumentalist Chris Keys delivers gorgeous bookends to the album that encapsulate its spirit. The intro, “Lemon Tree” channels the wounded angel beauty of Elliott Smith. It’s a meditation on the difficulties of preserving sanity in a mad world and a metaphor for cultivating seeds and hoping they blossom into fruitful growth. The finale, “Stir Crazy” is a gentle swell of psychedelic soul that reminds us of the boundless joy that we can still receive from music.

If the Mello compilation series started as a platform for the label to collaborate directly with artists and explore innovative sounds and movements, it has gone well beyond curation. It has fostered alchemical collaborations between artists who were previously strangers – which sometimes led to signings, full albums, and more. But at their best, as with Omakase, it is something more substantial than a captivating experience. It is an idea about the possibilities of what sound can be when it is untethered from crass commercialism and genre boxes. A promise that the art can evolve without the essence changing. This is a reminder of one of the last places to go, where you know that only the finest will be served.

production by Chris Keys, Yungmorpheus, Denmark Vessey, L’Orange, House Shoes, Apollo Brown, Dougie Do, Namir Blade, E.Dot, and Kamaal Williams

vocals by Chris Keys, Yungmorpheus, Solemn Brigham, Fly Anakin, Denmark Vessey, Namir Blade, Paradime, Fatboi Sharif, Megz, Marv Won, Danny Brown, Ketchphraze, Mu, Canc3r, Raheem DeVaughn, Ro Brown, and Stalley.

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