It is quite possible that hip-hop is afraid of its own shadow. Not the shadow in the Jungian sense, mind you. We’re all well aware that hip-hop can travel to some dark and cavernous spaces, a good example being the bleak scorched-earth numbers found on Thavius Beck’s newest Dialogue. However, hip-hop always seems reluctant to acknowledge its own influence on the culture at large.
Perhaps this is because hip-hop necessitates a special interspatial relationship between disapproval and acceptance, mainstream financing and underground credibility, a power-affecting dialectic and an esoteric patois. It may also be that hip-hop, in the tradition of black diasporic music, is itself patchwork, meaning that any re-representations of hip-hop’s own remixed culture-branding may extinguish the connections between rap music as end product and its reformatted antecedents. (It’s not for nothing that one of hip-hop’s premier magazines is called The Source.) Ancestry is perhaps even more important than legacy for hip-hop, which tends to consider itself a perpetual zeitgeist.
In an article on black science fiction for The Wire in 1992, Mark Sinker wrote, “The triumph of black American culture is that, forcibly stripped by the Middle Passage and Slavery Days of any direct connection with African mother culture, it has nonetheless survived; by syncretism, by bricolage, by a day-to-day programme of appropriation and adaptation as resourcefully broad-minded as any in history.”
Thavius Beck likely didn’t name his album Dialogue because it is that rare hip-hop album that is in communication with the shadow of hip-hop’s influence. It likely has more to do with the febrile agitprop of his lyrics. Yet, at a time when mainstream hip-hop has celebrated its post-Obama/postracial victory lap by embracing the least Afrodelic music on the planet, delibidinized Ibizan trance, it’s refreshing to find a producer who has found value in electronic styles and who actually acknowledges that hip-hop was not the end of history, the final development in a musical continuum.
Beck seems to view himself more along a hip-house continuum. He has acknowledged his debt to grime, which has been largely ignored by US hip-hop, and is certainly no stranger to dubstep either, as evidenced by the Purple Wow style chromatics of the Joker-esque lead single “Go!”. Yet Beck’s modernity is also a bit dystopian, and as such, tends to also reflect an industrial aesthetic as well, particularly in the rhythm department. Of course, industrial, from Godflesh to Meat Beat Manifesto, was itself not untouched by hip-hop and Beck’s proximity to Trent Reznor, as Nine Inch Nails remixer and co-producer of Saul Williams’s The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust puts him in that class of engineers who teetered in the liminal space between the two scenes when all this music was fresh, a kind of post-Dilla Tackhead or a more manic and less fuzzed-out Techno Animal.
Certainly, the standout on Dialogue are the sonics, though Beck’s rapping is front and center on nearly every cut this go-around. His first two solo albums, Thru and especially Decomposition, were producer’s albums, despite the odd vocal track. Beck pushed his experimental edge further with Subtitle in the group Lab Waste. “I’m gonna go to my digital safe haven and make them deep vibrations”, Beck, a trainer and demonstrator of Ableton Live software, declares on the aforementioned “Go!”, suggesting that he’s much happier behind a screen than wielding a megaphone.
Dialogue maintains a pretty consistent Bomb Squad level energy level throughout though. “Burn” narrates a full scale riot goin’ on where “molotov cocktails fail to yield at the site of a plastic shield”. Beck’s lyrics are presented in rapid-fire succession with a fairly straightforward style and delivery, like a laser-tongued Del the Funky Homosapien. He is a bit stoic throughout, allowing editorial language to seep in when he’s describing the various “leeches” and “vampires” and “those who devour / all of the nectar and take the very essence of the flower” (“Away”), but never quite sounding angry enough to explode into acts of unbridled violence at any moment. In fact, he even shuns the latter on “Violence”, laying heavily into Thug Life and discontents. He reminds his peers that the American black male is “just generations away from being slaves / yet this is how you jiggaboo niggas want to behave?”
Instead of striving for raw aggression, Beck focuses on motivational talk, apparently taking his cues from the inspirational samples he culled for “To Make a Manifest”. The affect can either be off-putting or engaging, depending on how you come to the music. Certainly, the militarized beats Beck employs are not always the best match for his righteous rants. Direct command lines like “Identify bullshit quick and reroute it”, “Go! / Above and beyond, around and below and through every available avenue”, “Make the scenery shift / be an escapist”, and ” Live your life with some purpose / otherwise that shit is worthless / even the pressure is precious” populate the choruses and stanzas as if Beck were a guru divining wisdom upon his disciples. Yet, even though Beck can occasionally unearth an eloquent line, his subject matter is often too broad to have any real effect beyond very base-level agitprop. The song titles reflect this too; “Money”, “Violence”, “Painful”, “Pressure”. In this way, Dialogue reminds this reviewer, oddly enough, of Radio 4’s Gotham!, a call to arms that is either too polite or aimed too widely to truly instigate anything but the flow of blood throughout the body.
From the perspective of the producer, this may be more than enough. Dialogue is still an exciting listen, despite its diffuseness. Even the generalized anthemic stabs at materialism (“Money”), violence (“Violence”), and corporate music (“Sheepish”, which samples the same Thurston Moore clip from 1991: The Year Punk Broke that the Radio Dept. recently used on one of their tunes) make one want to pump their fists.
Beck keeps his productions, which like Kanye or Dilla are often backed by a rave-ified sped-up voice sample, concise and abrupt. His longest statement measures only 3 minutes and 38 seconds. The impetus behind these paroxysms was a review criticizing previous albums for being too long (fancy that, a music critic making an impact). “I decided I would rather have someone buy an album that’s 35 minutes long, and when it’s over, they would be like, ‘Damn, I wanna hear this again,’ rather than have them be bored with it 40 minutes in and there’s still 20 minutes left. I want people to want more.”
With Dialogue, Beck shows that he has succeeded in this aim via both his strengths and his weaknesses. We’re left wanting more because what’s good is so good that it demands more than the weak points have to offer. Let’s hope this is only the start of the Dialogue and not the final word.