Wednesday, August 13, 2014

album review: 'directors of photography' by dilated peoples

It's really been a shockingly good year for hip-hop music.

Well, you wouldn't know it if you only followed mainstream rap, but 2014 has proven to be shockingly good both in the introduction of new talent, an explosion of established MCs delivering solid projects or going in a new direction to strong results, and even old underground talents returning to the spotlight with seriously solid records. It's definitely a shame more of it hasn't elbowed its way into the mainstream just yet, but really, that's only just a matter of time, especially as a slew of strong records from TDE continue to gain mainstream attention and even some airplay.

But TDE isn't the only hip-hop label that's putting out quality, and this takes us to Rhymesayers Entertainment, an indie label based in Minneapolis who has some seriously talented MCs behind it like MF Doom, Brother Ali, and Step Brothers, the collaboration project between producers and rappers The Alchemist and Evidence, who released their debut record this year Lord Steppington.

But here's a funny thing: The Alchemist and Evidence have worked together before, on a project that has a certain amount of justly deserved critical acclaim in the underground. That project was Dilated Peoples, featuring the trio of DJ Babu, Evidence, and MC Rakaa Iriscience. After almost a decade of work, they released the exceedingly strong one-two punch in 2000 and 2001 with The Platform and Expansion Team, two records designed to be a thinking rapper's counterattack to the overheated violence and melodrama of gangsta rap. And while I definitely think The Platform is stellar, I couldn't help but notice the flow and wordplay seemed to simplify and get less interesting with each subsequent album, especially on 2004's Neighborhood Watch that had simpler production and their one genuinely awesome charting hit 'This Way' featuring Kanye West. They managed to pull things around with the reasonably solid 20/20, but it was the sort of return to form that simultaneously went grittier, more political, and a lot less likely to break through. It was their final album on Capitol Records, and after that, the group did not release an album or singles for years, going on to other projects and never really indicating there would be another Dilated Peoples record.

And yet this year, where many veterans have returned to the microphone, Evidence, Rakaa Iriscience, and DJ Babu have come together to drop a new album titled Directors of Photography, and you can bet I wanted to check it out. How is it?

Well, here's an interesting case, because Dilated Peoples' comeback record falls into a decidedly odd spot for me: it's a record that has, in my opinion, a damn near fantastic central concept that's damn near perfect for the artists in question, and then takes several steps towards realizing that vision... and then, for some bizarre reason, never takes that necessary next step to elevate it to a true masterpiece. In other words, Directors of Photography by Dilated Peoples is a damn solid album that's really close to being genuinely amazing, but just can't help to feel a step or so short of that pedestal. But at the same time - and I don't want to undersell this album - there are enough moments on this record that are so damn incredible that I dearly wish it had gone just a little further.

So before we get to that concept I like so much, let's briefly talk about our MCs and the instrumentation - and if you've heard a Dilated Peoples album or any of Evidence's most recent production work, you'll know exactly what to expect. Intermixed jazz/soul samples, sandy production, a real textured variety of beats, all of which create a vibe that reflects the sort of old-school grandeur that comes from a master craftsman's cluttered yet organized studio. And there are so many incredibly solid instrumental moments to mention: the stuttering percussion, piano line, and brief spikes of additional instrumentation punctuating lines in 'Directors', the faint strings near the back on 'Cut My Teeth', the murky b-movie vibe of 'The Dark Room' that never feels overstated, the rough-edged simmering guitars against the off-kilter high synths on 'Good As Gone', the horns and piano of 'Show Me The Way' that take Aloe Blacc's neo-soul edge and brings it back to something more organic and oldschool, the great echoing and mournful guitars against the scratchy mix of 'Let Your Thoughts Fly Away', the dark submerged guitar riff on 'The Reversal', and of course I dug that organ riff on 'Trouble'. And all of it is masterfully mixed and layered, with only the incredibly shrill synth on 'Defari Interlude' and the abuse of pitch-shifting on 'Figure It Out' really getting on my nerves. 

And both Rakaa Iriscience and Evidence drop into their characteristic dynamic damn near perfectly, with Rakaa bringing more energetic and straightforward lyricism that will readily reference political issues while Evidence is more introspective and abstract, his flow more methodical and controlled. And like always, the two play off each other excellently. I wish that was the same for all of their guest stars, though. Sure, Krondon doesn't disappoint on 'The Bigger Picture', and Oh No and The Alchemist drop solid verses on 'Opinions May Vary', but I was a little disappointed to see Vince Staples relegated only to the chorus on 'The Dark Room' and Sick Jacken's verse on 'L.A. River Drive' wasn't so much bad as it was out of place. And really, for the most part, Evidence and Rakaa deliver incredibly solid bars but there are moments where their flow can get a little staccato with pauses that don't exactly help the overall momentum.

But let's get to that overarching concept that I was so excited about: positioning our MCs as 'directors of photography'. Now it might seem to be an odd title to gun for, until you start digging into what a director is. A good director has an idiosyncratic style and form, well-versed in traditional modes of creating art but adding his own spin. He works primarily behind the scenes, is rarely the star in front of the camera - a natural parallel to a producer - and yet he is the one crafting the artistic vision of the piece. He's not so much concerned with the flash of wealth but instead of the craft itself - and as such, to the mainstream public they are often ignored, only appreciated by the fans who dig deeper. It's no surprise that L.A. - the location of Hollywood - comes up so often in the imagery sketched by the instrumentation and wordplay and the added use of film samples. And unsurprisingly, the method of creating these pictures comes up too in songs like 'The Dark Room', the place where films - and rhymes - are cut together, either the editing booth or the club stage. But it isn't just the 'director' label that deserves consideration, but the photography metaphor as well. Photos are still moments in time, requiring their own composition, and there are a number of songs where Rakaa and Evidence work to create those vivid pictures that last and yet might feel 'out-of-time' with the present and mainstream through their production and wordplay. And what I love about this record is that both artists are aware of this fact and yet couldn't care less, yet showing enough nuance on songs like 'Good As Gone' to show they've been tempted. That raw honesty informs all of the best songs of this album, from the hotly political Rakaa solo track 'Century Of The Self' to Evidence's very personal 'The Reversal', which features some of the best lines I've heard in rap music this year. Take this one: "If history is to repeat itself then it ain't set in stone", where Evidence is both conscious of the fact that he as the 'director' and the group are returning to old territory, but that foreknowledge gives him richer context with which to beat those expectations. The best song, however, is 'Let Your Thoughts Fly Away', because it takes the 'director' conceit and goes deeper, showing how the director needs to be able to look outside of the frame of his art and experience life in order to add more colour and variety, and he can't just hide behind his camera. Similarly, it shows Evidence leaving the block when he made enough to see more of the world and Rakaa seeing fresh inspiration and hope in the eyes of his son - inspiration they need to take because 'the only constant is change'.

And I just wished this album stuck with that tagline to keep evolving, and here's where we get into that additional step the band could have taken because you also get a fair amount of braggadocious but well-executed bars that only circumspectly into the overarching themes of the album. Yes, I like the constant circles back to L.A. showing home as the creative wellspring, and I like the references to cameras and directors that crop up more than you'd expect, and I do love how vividly they sketch pictures with their wordplay, but at the same time, I can't help but feel this album is missing that ending punch moment. It's honestly why I'm not fussed the bonus tracks were cut - yeah, Rapsody, Evidence, and Fashawn drop great verses on 'Hallelujah', but it and 'Times Squared' feel like inessential bonus material and they don't contribute to the overall themes of the record. 

And then you remember that even at Dilated Peoples' best, they've never really made conceptually adventurous hip-hop albums. In fact, while I do think this album is a step below The Platform, it's probably the most lyrically innovative album Dilated Peoples have ever made, at least thematically. And the more I listened to it, the more I really liked it. For me, it's probably a shade stronger than Expansion Team and I'm going to give it a 8/10. Folks, Rakaa Iriscience, DJ Babu, and Evidence came back with something special, and you definitely don't want to miss it.

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