Spirit in Stone (Quannum Projects)

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As the first MCs signed to the vaunted California hip-hop label Quannum Projects since the mid-'90s, Portland's Lifesavas have plenty to live up to. Although the imprint has built its legacy mostly via its world-renowned core of DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, and Latryx, its five-year support of this trio has proven wise.

The Lifesavas owe an undeniable debt to early-'90s progressive hip-hop cliques, from L.A.'s Freestyle Fellowship to New York's Native Tongues. But rather than ape those influences on Spirit's 16 tracks, these cats boost them. For one thing, they rhyme better than their elders, as on "Soldierfied": "Charge it to the game?/What if the game got bad credit/With bulimic bank statements and IOUs and debits?/Where I stand/It seems like the game is repossessing dreams/And canceling niggas' lifespans." Jumbo's heavyweight beats bounce with tinges of guitar feedback, clanking pianos, and Rev. Shines' densely overlaid scratch tracks. Most important, the album evolves in mood: Playful battle tunes and positive anthems such as "Livin' Time" gradually give way to the darker themes of "State of the World" and "Fifth Horseman."

Spirit in Stone lives up to the burden of being a Quannum album. In fact, it surpasses the label's standard, which is good news for fans of that endangered species known as solidly built hip-hop.

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