Tha Blue Herb are the Company Flow of Japanese hip-hop: uncompromising, fiercely independent and more apt to induce chin-stroking than booty-shaking. When their debut album dropped in 1998, it was unlike anything the local scene had heard before. Central to their appeal was Ill-Bosstino, the trio’s lone MC, whose dense, metaphor-heavy rhymes were a world away from the hands-in-the-air banality peddled by his peers. A decade on, he still sounds like no one else, but “Life Story” finds Tha Blue Herb losing ground to the groups they inspired. While the lyrics (of which translations appear in the liner notes) still offer plenty to chew on, the musical settings feel curiously drab especially given the audacity of producer O.N.O’s work on their last full album, 2002′s “Sell Your Soul.”
After an impressive start, the album gets bogged down in the kind of trip-hop sludge that Massive Attack might have tossed off, then dismissed as too derivative, circa 1995. It’s a shame, because when they shake off the torpor as on the febrile “Run 2 You” and the brittle machine-funk of “Motivation” Tha Blue Herb sound utterly vital. A few more tracks like that and “Life Story” might have been essential. A nationwide tour by the group starts in their hometown Sapporo on June 23.