|Side One:||Side Two:|
I’m always inwardly leaping for joy at moments of silly synchronicity. All kinds of connections just have their sort of appeal to me–it’s that love of crossover, patterns, references, and in-jokes that I can’t resist, if achieved via skill or pure coincidence. That Blakroc’s lone album happens to follow Rádio do Canibal in my collection, alphabetically, is pure coincidence, but it’s kind of an amusing one. It would be clever if it were planned in some way. Largely, though, I’ve left the album alone for reasons similar to the reasons I left Rádio do Canibal alone–it felt like it would end up a mishmash of disjointed sounds due to the “varied guests per track” approach. There’s a seeming human tendency to identify most with the voice in any given musical act, one that means that the vocalist is seen as the star by the majority, regardless of their actual role in creating the music. I don’t know that anyone has actually studied this, but I’m inclined to think it relates to the fact that we all are capable of making noise with throat and mouth, so there’s a base to start the understanding from. In any case, I often swing either way when it comes to voices, sometimes nearly ignoring them, but often clinging to them as much as anyone. It means that albums like these make me kind of wary, even as the idea of them attracts me.
Blakroc is not, and was not, a “group”, so to speak, and is often referred to as a “rock/hip-hop collective”, a bit of a silly term for a group of musicians who collaborated once, briefly, and that’s essentially all. In any case, they are composed (as it were) of the Black Keys (Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney), Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA (it’s pronounced rizzuh, basically), and Raekwon from the Wu Tang Clan, Jim Jones (the rapper, not the cult leader) and NOE from Jim Jones’ label ByrdGang, Q-Tip from a Tribe Called Quest, Pharoahe Monch, Ludacris, Billy Danze, Mos Def, and Nicole Wray. They don’t use any sampling, which isn’t unheard of in rap (as I noted earlier, the two are mixed heavily in Atmosphere’s The Family Sign, for instance) but still remains unusual. What is more unusual is for an explicit rock band to be specifically acting as the beat for a set of rappers.
Featuring pre-recored vocals as Ol’ Dirty Bastard had already passed on, “Coochie” opens the CD and vinyl versions of the album (unlike the digital versions at iTunes and Amazon, which lack the track). He’s paired with Ludacris, the two of them opening the song with the vocal hook, which is backed by Auerbach’s plaintive, distant guitar line, and Carney’s economical drum beat, that gives the song a lot of space but doesn’t sacrifice power. ODB and Ludacris both talk about women whose sexual appetites are utterly irresistible to them, and their voices take up all the space Carney leaves, multiplying the speed of the rhythm significantly. Auerbach comes into the goreground for the outro, playing further with the still echoing lead he drops throughout the song.
Somewhat out of character from the rest of the emcees in place, Mos Def appears next on “On the Vista”, rapping about freeing consciousness, abandoning materialism–taking control. Patrick pounds the song into place though, using a floor tom fill to ground the beat. A bassline (uncredited, but based on the photos, most likely the work of Mos Def himself) is the essence of the beat, but Auerbach fills the space between Mos Def’s words with the fuzzy bends and wails he is known for, relenting only to give Mos Def the space to sing out variations on the words “total control” in a knowingly off-key and random sort of way.
NOE’s first appearance on the album is on “Hard Times”, which uses the vocals of Nicole Wray as a sort of sample (though they are apparently live recordings), repeating the title of the song. The Keys have a little bit more dominance and control on the track, perhaps because they have a bass and a piano accompanying them, and Patrick is filling more of the rhythm out on his kit than on the previous tracks. NOE has a style and voice that are reminiscent of Jay-Z (apparently to his detriment in the past), with an ease and confidence that avoids aggression like ODB’s and lets the song maintain its own relaxed pacing.
A semi-traditional hip-hop rhythm from Patrick opens “Dollaz & Sense”, with RZA showing his appreciation for the beat and moves to get his voice in place accompanying before the song opens up. The photos hint that RZA may have played bass on the album as well, and there’s a strong line in place here to suggest that. Wah, echo and a few other effects define Auerbach’s semi-ghostly guitar sound here, but it’s also the first time his voice appears on the album. In the same way Nicole performed the vocal hook for “Hard Times”, Auerbach sings “If it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense”, in a fashion that mimics sampling. RZA and Pharaohe Monch have strong rhymes, but ones that sound in delivery and rhythm like they may be the improvisations of skilled emcees–a bit halting, but usually halts are just the sound of quick minds making up brilliant lines to follow.
Breaking from the rap designation of the majority of the album for a moment, Dan, Patrick, and Nicole (who, by the way, performs the female vocal duties on the Black Keys’ Brothers) give us “Why Can’t I Forget Him”, which lets the boys play the part of R&B band, Dan mostly following a bassline and frosting its low end with a fuzzy guitar lead. Patrick puts in one of his most seemingly-programmed beats, played in a fashion that fits more with sampled drum parts than even early R&B beats. Nicole’s voice truly gets to shine, though, overdubbed with herself, but powerful and soulful without being showy–hardly a wonder they all worked together after this. Vibraphone-type keys and isolated and varied forms of Auerbach’s lick back Nicole alone for a brief bridge that just brings more soul to the smoky, hazy feel of the track’s talk of memory.
Creating a real moment of coincidence, Raekwon makes his second appearance in front of me in two days, this time backed by the Keys on “Stay off the Fuckin’ Flowers”. Auerbach’s guitar centers on wandering experimentation and effects, keys and a gentler rhythm from Patrick letting the smooth delivery of Raekwon control the sound of the song, relentlessly in motion though it is. The outro is Auerbach just let go with the guitar meanderings, Raekwon expressing his appreciation.
Mos Def returns on “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)”, acting primarily as the vocal hook, answered by a simple “La la la” melody from Auerbach’s voice. Jim Jones, then, gets the verses to rap over, Mos Def getting to give us a number of great variations in his chorus, and Auerbach left to actually perform one of the guitar tracks that actually fills out the entire song.
A nice, fuzzy lead that begins to pace itself and a steady beat gives a great backing for Q-Tip to start out on “Hope You’re Happy”, but when his verse ends, Auerbach opens up, Q-Tip starts the chorus and Nicole Wray gets to answer it–a peak moment for the album in terms of full band sound. Billy Danze comes in with a gravelly, aggressive delivery on the next verse (think Busta Rhymes outside his motormouthed mode). The outro to the song lets Nicole get another moment to really shine.
Sounding tired, broken, and almost pleading, RZA opens “Tellin’ Me Things” almost alone, half-singing, “She just keeps tellin’ me things/Things I don’t wanna hear”. In contrast to the slow burn of the bassline, Patrick lays down an almost disco beat (complete with “pea-soup”!), though a bit more varied. Auerbach plays a sort of spooky, haunting lick. RZA tells us the story of a very odd relationship, managing to compare himself and the “she” in question to Mork and Mindy–even repeating it for emphasis.
Continuing to cycle back through the rappers we were introduced to, “What You Do to Me” brings back Jim Jones and Billy Danze, but starts out with an organ line that gives us Dan in “sample mode” again, with an answer from Nicole Wray. But then he actually breaks out into whole lines instead of just a short hook, and you feel more like Nicole’s voice came out of another song instead of his. Jim Jones’ delivery is relaxed, almost mumbled, though its tempo is nothing of the kind. The organ and Auerbach’s guitar function more rhythmically through the verse, with the organ defining the melody of the chorus he sings, though he continues playing a single chord on beat throughout, always muting it just after it starts. Nicole brings some major power to her performance here, too. Billy Danze brings a shock or aggression and power–again, Busta-style–using even over-dubbed vocals to give an emphasis to his lines. It’s worked well in, even as Dan and Nicole are more in the R&B or blues vein with their sung vocals. There’s actually a long outro (a good minute and a half) of Auerbach actually working in some guitar leads, and Nicole just playing with her voice in the feel of a live bluesy performance. The two complement each other very well indeed, not quite using call and answer, so much as working alongside each other.
The album ends with “Done Did It”, which returns NOE, and lets Dan play a guitar riff that sounds more like it was sampled and chopped in, Patrick using another very hip-hop drum beat with big, boomy kicks. NOE throws a lot more energy at it than the beat or guitar expect, but the thudding, the tambourine rattle, and the descending guitar lick take us right into the chorus for another great vocal from Wray, as she brings the title of the song up and down in pitch with soul. NOE calms his delivery a little on the second verse, and relaxes even more on the third.
This is, in general, an odd sort of album. I’m not sure how much it would appeal to Black Keys fans as a Black Keys project (it’s why I picked it up, and it didn’t satisfy that particular itch, which contributed to its dust-gathering status). But taken, instead, as a constructed hip-hop album that uses a live, recorded band playing new beats designed for this explicit purpose–taking not only that, but specifically a blues-inflected band is actually the recipe for a very interesting sound. It’s a melding of two musical styles that are connected but separated by generations, instead of trying to graft an alternate branch–like rock–to the branch of hip-hop.
I can’t really pass up the opportunity to talk about Michael Carney’s graphic design. It’s true that a retro look is a bit of a fad in album art of late, at least in some circles, but the way it’s done here is just fantastic. In large part, the album itself is pure mystery. That cover tells you next to nothing, resembling, if anything, a lot of the weird, semi-amateur prog rock album covers of the 1970s. Why in the world is their jam (?) hanging off the roofs of a series of tall buildsings? What is Blakroc? And yet, it’s also a stylish piece of work, nicely crafted and framed, so that it seems to fit even the unusual and rather unique sound that lies within it. The back cover doesn’t help much–the tracklisting is placed above and below the moon with the same green and blue drippy covering. No mention is made of the Black Keys anywhere (the emcees present are listed below each song in small print, however). Inside, you have art that mimics the more informative variety of past cover art: a multi-panel set of equally sized black and white studio photos is topped by retro-styled credits and information. It really feels right.
One of the things that bugs me about some instances of musical reactions wandering the “blogosphere” is that there’s the clear notion (or occasional admission) that the listening takes place while doing entirely unrelated things. I’m not the type to insist on focusing on music in general–I’m often listening while doing other things–but this is a time that I definitely stop and focus on listening. I keep the album sleeves in my hand to read along with the lyrics or soak in cover art, or examine credits and details about the album’s production. This was one of the nicest to look at by far, and felt exactly right for the album, even though it is a callback to album art that predates even the earliest rap by a fairly significant amount.
- Next Up: The Blood Brothers – March on Electric Children