All Funked Up... All Funked Out
“Outer space head funk” is how the Milwaukee-based coed hip-hop unit Def Harmonic describe the sound of their second album. But ultimately that means that each of the dozen songs follows the same basic pattern: JTodd’s half-chanted, half-sung chorus, followed by either his or Lunaversol9’s verse, followed by the chorus again, and on and on. And in the background, a midtempo, P-Funk-inspired rhythm. It’s not exactly a bad formula, but only a couple tracks on All These Worldz squeeze something special out of it.
Any time you’re talking rap’n'soul these days, Outkast is a natural reference point. And JTodd definitely shares Andre 3000’s general aura of positivity and enthusiasm for all types of popular music. Unfortunately, he lacks Andre’s charisma and goofy sense of humor. His deep voice is definitely better at singing than rapping, but he just doesn’t give himself enough strong melodies to take advantage of it. Couple this with production that starts strong but gradually bogs down into autofunk, and the overfamiliar P-Funk paradigm, and you have a mostly likeable but very uneven album.
“Magnificent” and “Thundering” are sun-drenched, pot-soaked tunes that benefit greatly from some nice dancehall-influenced production. Despite the intellectual yet sometimes hokey psychedelic lyrics (“Drink of the soul / ‘Cause it hydrates me”), JTodd and Lunaversol9 come on like they have something to say, are proud of it, and don’t want you to miss it.
Furthermore, Worldz has two genuinely transcendent moments. One is “Spaced Out”, a no-holes-barred psychedelic funk/soul/hip-hop jam that announces itself with a crushingly simple two-beat rhythm and textbook Kraftwerk/Bambaataa synthesizer shriek. This song kills even before the electro-bass kicks in! Then Lunaversol9 starts rattling off her story with some truly cosmic turns of phrase (she’s an “ aggressively moonstruck pacifist”) and you’re ready to surrender. The other moment is “So Emotional”, another funk workout that boasts the album’s strongest chorus and some trè cool jazz guitar noodling. These tracks show just how effective Def Harmonic can be at twisting classic styles into something that’s all their own.
So what’s the problem, then? Well, too much of the rest of Worldz lumbers along at what feels like half-speed, as if JTodd’s Old School R&B references and Lunaversol9’s (admittedly seductive) feline delivery are enough to do the trick. But when funk loses its focus, it plods, and that’s what happens to tracks like “Live for the Sound”, the all-too-obvious knockoff “Zapp! Whut!”, and the nearly unlistenable “Take it High”. Some awesome turntable work from DJ Epicenter is almost, almost a saving grace, but those blissful choruses start to become cloying and, worse, boring.
It’s great to see a coed hip-hop group (and a Midwestern one at that!) who are willing to forgo genre and gender stereotypes and stale sexuality in favor of smarts and optimism. Hopefully, Def Harmonic’s next album will be as consistently fun to listen to as it sounds like it was to make.