Hi-Tek's career as a producer has snowballed since his work on Doom, the 1997 TVT Records debut from Cincy Hip Hop group Mood. The Cincinnatian's tracks with Mos Def and Talib Kweli made him much sought-after, leading to sessions with the likes of Common, Beanie Sigel and Snoop Dogg. More recently, he's been on staff at Dr. Dre's Aftermath label, pimping his production skills on huge sellers like 50 Cent's The Massacre and The Game's The Documentary and scouting new talent. It says a lot about Tek's deft production instincts and beat-making mastery that a genius studio maestro like Dre would entrust him with some of his label's biggest projects.
In 2001, Tek proved his worth as a "frontman" with his widely-acclaimed "solo" album, Hi-Teknology, which featured a bevy of special guests, including Common and Slum Village. He follows the same tact with Teknology's sequel, Hi-Teknology2, though Tek inches a little further out this time by manning the mic more often. He's hardly the best MC on his own album (meaning a Kanye West-style, more truly "solo" effort might not work just yet), but he's grown tremendously. The cameo role in Hip Hop today often results in toss-off verses, but Tek (like the late J Dilla) brings something special out of his guests, as Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Kweli, Jadakiss, The Game and most of the other guest MCs offer deep, crafty poetics on slots that are worthy of their own albums.
While at its essence a DJ/producer album, Tek doesn't just show off his technical skills on Hi-Teknology2. He serves the song, crafting cuts that are loaded with Soul and R&B hooks, shadowed mostly by ethereal, twinkling backdrops that mix slinky Funk with spacious Hip Hop rhythms.
Showing that music is in his blood, Tek is backed by several family members in the guise of the Willie Cottrell Band, featuring Tek's uncle on guitar (his ma and pop show up as well). The album also contains perhaps the most adorable Hip Hop track ever, "Think I Got a Beat," with Tek's very young son lovingly following in daddy's footsteps.
Tek opens the album up with "The Chip," which bumps on a bed of crosswired string samples and has Tek rapping about his leading role in the Cincinnati Hip Hop scene ("Single handedly carried the 'Nati on my back/And I ain't even that big"). Gifted singer Dion (a fellow Cincinnatian whom Tek signed to Aftermath) lends his stirring old-school croon to several of Teknology2's best tracks, practically stealing the show on the resonating "Keep It Moving," the Dre-like "1-800-HOMICIDE" (with a fierce, throat-slashing turn by The Game) and the low-riding "So Tired." "Where It Started At (NY)" is a tough and leanin' homage to New York and its crucial role in Hip Hop, while the disc ends with its best cut, "Music For Life," an uplifting, flute-'n-Funk-infused tribute to how important music has been in the lives of the participants (J. Dilla, Nas, Common, Busta Rhymes and Floetry's Marsha Ambrosius).
Tek shows a deep understanding of Hip Hop (and, to an extent, R&B) history while forging his own distinctive production style (which is usually relatively understated and refreshingly nuanced) and songwriting prowess, which is probably the most impressive thing about the album.
Teknology2 doesn't just have the best guest list of the year; it's also one of the better-crafted high-profile Hip Hop albums you'll likely hear in 2006. Hi-Tek performs with Talib Kweli at 6 p.m. for the free Fountain Square unveiling concert Saturday. (Mike Breen) Grade: A