In the eight years between this and Dilated Peoples’ last proper full length, the hip-hop landscape has shifted. To illustrate just how far the scales have tilted in favor of disposable pop rap with or without an associated dance move, one only needs to look towards Nas and Nick Cannon’s subtle-as-a-hammer-to-the-knee screed against corporate rap, “Eat dat watermelon”. Directors of Photography helps to tilt the balance back towards thoughtful, well-crafted hip-hop, and while it doesn’t quite scale the heights of Dilated Peoples’ early 2000s heyday, it proves a welcome return for the group.
Dilated Peoples’ catalog as a whole features albums that are often peppered with tracks that have impressive rhyming which is unfortunately paired with not-quite-there beats. Often times it isn’t a case of a bad beat, more a beat that isn’t quite right for the lyrics. The group seem well aware of this as the opening cut “Directors” rides a sparse, rattling march beat laced with an equally spartan piano loop—not too busy, not too barren, but hitting that just right sweet spot to let the words flow. Rakaa and Evidence have a bit of tunnel vision regarding their subject matter, but they have made a career on knowing how to spit multiple variations on the same theme. Really, if it isn’t broke, why fix it? Having said that, it’s refreshing to hear them step out of their comfort zone on this album far more than they have in the past.
“Let Your Thoughts Fly Away” is a moment of vulnerability that helps to give the album balance. The boasts and braggadocio are gone, and in place of the swagger that once was, exhaustion reigns. It comes across like the tale of tired mic warriors who just want to put it down and relax for a while, weary of life in general. Whatever you might call it, it’s a welcome sign of growth and a more honest reflection of where the group is not only as musicians, but simply as people.
This reflection and evolution of thought rolls forward impressively with “Century of the Self”. It can seem a bit paranoid, but it serves as a fitting snapshot of how clever they can be when they turn the speed up, matched with blistering social commentary. Nothing wrong with laid-back raps, for sure, but it’s good enough to conjure a longing for more of the same. More of the same does follow later on with “Opinions May Vary” but once again the Achilles heel of Dilated Peoples rears its ugly head. The lyrics lose all impact as they sink into a far-too-busy beat, which employs a real head-scratcher of a background noise (emergency broadcast beep looped throughout, anyone?) On tracks like this, they try to throw in everything and the kitchen sink and it drowns the track. There’s nothing wrong at all with using talent, and Dilated Peoples have talent to offer in spades. Trying to cram too much into one song to give an unnecessary reminder of that talent doesn’t help.
Directors of Photography marks Dilated Peoples’ first proper full length since returning to the independent scene, and that stamp is all over it. It harkens back to the clever minimalism of The Platform, while incorporating all they’ve learned since their early days as a group. And though it is an uneven affair, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air in the hip-hop world of 2014.