"Serial killers do on a small scale what governments do on a large one. They are products of their times and these are bloodthirsty times." That Jedi Mind Tricks choose to open their seventh studio album by quoting serial killer Richard Ramirez where they might previously have alluded to Gandhi or Malcolm X should tell rap fans nearly all they need to know about the 2011 incarnation of Philadelphia's longest-running underground rap group. Jedi Mind Tricks have always taken an aggressive tact toward socio-political hip-hop, though it's difficult to call their recent offerings "conscious" since they're more concerned with grotesque expressions of anger. The results are often stomach-turning and difficult to listen to, but it's nonetheless easy to see why this kind of music would resonate with a certain class of disenfranchised urban men where Talib Kweli or the Roots wouldn't. Jedi Mind Tricks make music for guys who feel like smashing shit, and who have a vague sense that their desperation has something to do with the powers that be.
What's kept the group running since 1996, and what's made them hard for rap critics to dismiss, despite Vinnie Paz's increasing proclivity for homophobic rants and macabre horrorcore rhymes that would probably make Tyler, the Creator queasy, has been producer Stoupe's harrowing, RZA-like production style. As much as his own powers have diminished since 2000's Violent By Design, it's immediately obvious that his departure from the group has left Jedi Mind Tricks without a distinctive sound. A crew of guest producers step in to stuff Violence Begets Violence with sub-Luger trunk rattlers and RZA knock-offs that are a lot less spooky than their portentous titles would suggest (I'd love to be at the show where fans heckle for "Willing a Destruction unto Humanity" or "The Sacrilege of Fatal Arms").
With Stoupe abdicating the studio, the responsibility for carrying the album rests squarely on the shoulders of Vinnie Paz and Jus Allah, MCs so terminally uncharismatic they make Black Thought look like Jay-Z. They diss Rick Ross, refer to a host of people/things/institutions as "faggots," and at one point wish AIDS on some unnamed hater. Even rap fans too hardened to blanch at the pair's flagrant bad taste should be offended by the shoddiness of their flows: At this point, they're increasingly difficult to tell apart, with the once-gifted Paz matching Allah in his willingness to employ a one-note bark on nearly every track. And the rhymes themselves are absolutely horrific. "Fatal Arms" contains what are, at least, the worst rap lyrics I've heard all year, as Paz threatens somebody with assassination: "My niggas'll put your dome in the wall from one phone call/Tryin' to be such a fucking know-it-all/Niggas pop a hole in your ball/But you with Pope John Paul/Shove your body inside a hole in the wall." The rhyme scheme couldn't be more juvenile, and I can imagine no interpretation in which the reference to the Pope makes the tiniest bit of sense. Besides, as death threats in rap go, this wouldn't cause Willow Smith to sleep with her nightlight on, let alone send Raekwon scrambling for his pistol.
The only real argument for listening to Violence Begets Violence is as historical curio: Here you can witness the exact moment when a once-promising rap crew officially flames out into moral, political, and artistic irrelevance. Especially with Tyler's Goblin showing that a rap record can be disgusting, nihilistic, and politically incorrect while still being human and compelling in its own twisted way, there's just no reason for intelligent rap fans to inflict this album on themselves.