Dilated Peoples have always been about vision. Their near-classic debut album, 2000’s The Platform, was literally that: a platform to greater success outside the Bay Area underground, and its 2001 follow-up, Expansion Team, saw the expansion and growth of their sound along with their profile. While the West Coast late 90s underground feel stayed consistent throughout, the beats-and-rhymes combination seemed more evolved with their sophomore release, and their prospects higher than ever before. They changed the focus of their vision with Neighborhood Watch, moving their sound in a new direction to mixed results and somewhat disappointing album sales, although the album spawned their biggest hit yet, the Kanye-West-produced breakout “This Way”. With 20/20, the team of DJ Babu, Evidence, and Rakaa the Iriscience, “back for the very fourth time”, clearly intends to refocus and sharpen its vision for a return to past glory.
And from the start, 20/20 is clearly strong. “Back Again” is the kind of hard-hitting Alchemist banger Dilated Peoples needed to silence the doubters, and it’s the perfect encapsulation of the best aspects of their sound. MCs Evidence and Rakaa never rap at any speed above “slow, precise lope”, but they’re laid-back dope in their own unique way, emphasizing the casual punchlines and drilling every word into your brain. And the rhymes themselves are fairly strong—the Diddy-referencing “Don’t worry if I write checks, I write rhymes” has been getting quoted a lot, but “It’s a new year, ok, I got shit to confess / Like I don’t smoke any moreхbut I don’t smoke any less” is an even better example, punctuated with mischievous laughter from Evidence. Its not technically impressive like a Kweli or a Busdriver track would be, but it’s inexplicably, slow-motion tight.
They keep the quality going for a little bit, with “You Can’t Hide, You Can’t Run” matching a punchy beat from Evidence with Babu-scratched soul samples. This segues nicely into “Alarm Clock Music”, a socially-conscious kick-in-the-ass of a strong beat that drives along insistently before cutting out at intervals to a wonderfully alarmist looping piano smash. Rakaa shows off his new political bent here (“Arabic name, not a nickname / That and the frame makes it hard to get planes”), but he never gets caught in the pitfall of self-congratulating preachiness, and it’s actually one of the album’s higher points.
This leads to the first major problem of the album: it’s essentially front-loaded, packing its most powerful punch in the first few tracks and then simmering to a lower level of heat. “Olde English” is probably the low point of the album Җ an ugly, buzzy mess of a song and while the remaining tracks are better, they still never quite manage to regain their initial momentum. Talib Kweli shows up for “Kindness for Weakness”; “Rapid Transit” with Strong Arm Steady’s Krondon is a bit too hooky to really work; the DJ Babu showcase “The One and Only” is a nice touch. Most later songs, like “The Eyes Have It” and title track “20/20”, are solid listens (and a nice change from commercial gangsta-ism) but nothing spectacular.
The rappers themselves, Evidence and Rakaa, put in similarly solid-but-not-exceptional work here. Evidence shines more here than in the past, dropping essentially single-minded braggadocio raps laced with undeniably clever one-liners; Rakaa lays off the boasting and puts in fewer quotables, but his efforts at social commentary and consciousness are admirable and, what’s more, genuinely likeable. While their calmly-paced verses can feel lazy in rare instances, when they’re on point, they֒re inarguably appealing.
After three albums of beat/scratch-driven laid-back rap, the Dilated Peoples formula is starting to wear just the slightest bit thin, and it’ll take more than this to get them back on track. Tracks like the reggae-flavored “Firepower” with Capleton show that taking their sound in new directions can work for them; it would be interesting to see them expand their vision more like this in future efforts. 20/20 is a strong, good album: it only lacks that singular feel, that urgent spark, that could push it on to greatness. And in the end, while it is a step up from Neighborhood Watch, it’s still essentially single-driven, and it fails to reach the heights of that album’s classic-vibe precursors.