[3 August 2009]
Doseone and Jel, the rapper and producer who collaborate under the name Themselves, have defined theFREEhoudini as their “posse record that never was, and contribution to the mixtape medium circuit so tied to hip hop history.” This goes a long way in explaining the perversity of dubbing this a Themselves album in the first place, given that it is the first proper release to be credited solely to the duo since 2002’s The No Music (notwithstanding 2005’s underestimated 13 & God, a collaboration with German electro-poppers The Notwist). Particularly with Doseone and Jel both now doing full time duty in the notably higher profile outfit Subtle, the use of this long-dormant moniker reveals itself to be strategic well beyond the usual freedom from expectations that typifies the indulgence in such side projects. Instead, what theFREEhoudini represents is an imagined hit of the “Reset” button for its now established players, a phantom nostalgia for the origin story that Doseone and Jel never quite lived out at the time.
Crucially, theFREEhoudini lands during the de facto ten-year anniversary of Anticon, the progressive-minded label/collective of which Doseone and Jel are two of the seven founding members. Now a decade removed from the release of its provocatively titled mission-statement compilation Music For The Advancement of Hip Hop, perception of the Anticon crew’s elastic and occasionally esoteric take on hip hop has run the gamut from praise for its madcap innovation to backlash for its perceived elitism, even as the label has significantly branched out in recent years by signing on acts outside the original founding core. Wherever Anticon’s current level of hipster cred may reside, though, few artists at work during the stasis of immediate pre- and post-millennial era were as bold in their exploration of the amorphous relationship between hip hop, electronica, and indie rock, all popular musical forms with roots in underground that still, at the time, remained largely segregated. If Anticon is far too off of the popular radar to have had any significant influence on the various stylistic integrations that finally exploded on the charts and blogs alike sometime around the decade’s mid-point, they were nevertheless a few steps ahead of the beat.
One of the most exhilarating aspects of theFREEhoudini is how palpably it reflects the freedom that comes from the shattering of such boundaries. “Party Rap Sucks”, goes the title of one track here, but if anything this sounds like a wholly celebratory record. The guest list is armed with an expansive roster of both original and occasional Anticon members and contributors (Buck 65, Sole, Serengeti, Slug, Alias, Why? and, at mixing board, Odd Nosdam) as well as an assortment of like-minded alt.hip-hop acts (Aesop Rock, Busdriver, and DJ Andrew of Fog only the most notable among them). The twenty tracks here—expanded from the original single-track, forty-minute free download offered up on the label’s site earlier in the year—bump and flow into each other in true mixtape fashion, but the feeling here is one of a true collaborative work rather than a patchwork of features and samples. Credit Jel’s deft, seamless production for making this all come off as such a unified whole. The album’s sound is every bit as meticulously pristine and enveloping as is the Anticon standard, shifting effortlessly between the lurching assault of “Oversleeping”, the jerky Morphine-like horn blasts of “Kick The Ball”, the propulsive throb of “Roman Is As Roman Does”, the sinuous lo-fi beats that propel “TheMark” or the ambient density of “Each Ant In Their House”.
At the same time, theFREEhoudini is a loose and expansive enough recording that it affords its guests sufficient opportunities to mold their contributions around their own personalities without sacrificing anything in the way of coherence. Aesop Rock’s verses on “Know That To Know This” retain the evocative sense of gritty drama that helped make his 2007 outing None Shall Pass such a rewarding listen. Sole’s turn on “1 For No Money” is typically fevered and intense, offering up what may be the album’s most astute moment of self-examination with “This aint’ a mixtape / it’s an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ tape / It’s high school revenge in a briefcase” because what is Anticon, after all, if not the freaks and geeks of hip hop staging their own loftily poised yet defiant rebellion? The manic unease of “Party Rap Sucks”, with a half minute of crooning by Busdriver abruptly interrupted with Doseone’s command to “fuck all this singing shit!” before spiraling off into a frantic verse trade-off between the two, is cheerfully crazed and playful in the exact mode of Busdriver’s own recordings.
In light of his stunning recent output, the druggy sputter of “Rapping4Money” cannot help but amount to minor Why?, but where Elephant Eyelash and Alopecia (and no doubt the upcoming Eskimo Snow) have found him pushing much further into the realm of pop, his performance here is entirely free to revel in the joy of his inventively skewed rhymes (his wittiest lyric here: “I’d ask if this pays / but upper class and rich say / broach no cash on a mixtape / it’s gauche, and that shows distaste”). Best of all, though, is “Keys To Ignition”, with Serengeti’s rhymes layered over a lovely mixture of mournful electronic hums and shuffling drum loops that glide along with a Kraftwerk-like hypnotic sleekness. If Serengeti’s declaration of “I’m important, I will never be a corporate slave” bristles uncomfortably against an earlier Saab name-drop, he is fully aware of the irony: in the track’s cataloguing of personal and professional disappointments, find “our dreamer’s destined to be poor / a creative mind but sleeping on a cement floor” among the narrator’s anxieties. The underground’s precarious relationship with the mainstream rarely gets addressed in song with so much of its thorny ambiguities intact.
For as much as theFREEhoudini registers as an Anticon homecoming, it is equally notable for featuring lead emcee Doseone doing his strongest and most intense work since Subtle’s 2006 masterpiece For Hero: For Fool. An astonishingly nimble and idiosyncratic rapper, Doseone’s insular nature has nevertheless lead, in more recent years, to recordings that were as impenetrable as they were impressive: the songs on the 2007 solo outing SkeletonRepelent were spacious and mellow to the point of drifting off into ether, while Subtle’s ambitious ExitingARM (2008) was wrapped in so many layers of intertextual meaning that the tunes were often buried underneath the concept (For Hero: For Fool was similarly dense in construction, but always forceful and exciting as music). Here, Doseone is once again utilizing his skills as a performer to propel the music forward, and the result is a record that is actually thrilling and fun to listen to, rather than simply “interesting”. Currently billed as a precursor to the “official” new Themselves album that is to appear before the year’s end, the rejuvenation of his pioneering outfit that is heard on theFREEhoudini already feels like a mission accomplished.