The duo’s debut release, and Zain’s first release ever, Birch Trees and Caesars is a journey through some of hip-hop’s most enduring and influential movements amalgamated into one album. This is definitely one of the year’s best underground Canadian releases.
Right off the bat, you can tell that Esquire and Zain are students of the game. As an MC tandem, they compliment each other well in the same manner that Talib and Mos did. (Esquire references that duo’s song, ‘Thieves in the Night’, in his own ‘Influencers’, starting his last verse with “mirages and camouflages”). Zain’s energy hits you right away while Esquire balances it out with a steady laidback flow. Both have old school-like flows with interesting verbal play, with Zain as the entertainer and Esquire the storyteller. In a lot of ways, Zain emulates early J-Cole with the same delivery and a strong resemblance to his cadence.
Lyrically, both are good, though Esquire’s past experience shows as his rhymes feel more developed and focused, compared to Zain who, once in a while, comes up with casual erratic trains of thought. It’s apparent that Esquire is, naturally, still at his best, talking about love and his inner workings, which is a product of his strong storytelling ability.
The majority of the album is produced by another Waterloo product, Lxgic. To say the production is good would be an understatement. Without a doubt, the production is the strength of the album, laying down the foundation for Esquire and Zain.
Lxgic has an incredible ear for samples, showing an uncanny ability to chop samples and make brass, string, and horn samples work with his drum loops. The most particularly interesting are his samples of Billie Holliday’s ‘Tenderly’ for ‘Evening Breeze’, and a clip from Cinderella for ‘Midnight’.
On both tracks, Lxgic takes the sample and weaves it into the fabric of the track, creating an undercurrent for Esquire and Zain to interact with. He has the ability to encapsulate the context of the chop, bringing to life the beauty and danger of Cinderella’s situation and the serenity of ‘Tenderly’. Through the samples and skits, the album has a cinematic quality, a core component of Esquire’s previous releases.
His versatility is apparent, switching from more atmospheric L.A. synth-soul type of production to straight A Tribe Called Quest shit on ‘Influencers’. It’s the most impressive Canadian production I’ve heard from an underground release this year.
Overall, Birch Trees and Caesars connect to hip-hop heads of the current generation because that’s who they are. Their hip-hop education is defined through the same perception as the most avid heads, referencing influential pieces such as Kanye’s ‘Last Call’ off College Dropout, Dave Chappelle’s Rick James skit, and employing movie skits like Blu on HerFavoriteColo(u)r. You can expect big things from these Waterloo, Ont., products.
For more on Esquire and Zain, visit their website.