England's Best Beatboxer? Yes. Prince? No.
In the world of popular music, is there any more dubious a proposition than the full-length beatboxer album? There have only been a few, and that’s no coincidence. As impressive as beatboxers can be in a live setting, or when serving as an experienced rapper’s backing track, very few people are going to go for a full hour of “DUH duh duh KEESH, Doosh chicka chicka”.
What’s a beatboxer with a record contract to do? Take one of two roads: Put out compilations of mostly skits and live cuts that showcase the beatboxing at the expense of actual songs, or put out song-oriented albums on which they attempt to write, sing, rap, and lasso guests into doing the same, relegating the skits and live cuts to between-track fodder. Rahzel, the Roots’ beatboxer and one of the best known in the world, had a go at the latter. The result was Make the Music 2000. Unless you’ve recently read a list of Most Embarrassingly Lame Albums by Prominent Members of Outstanding Hip Hop Groups, you probably haven’t heard of it.
Killa Kela is widely recognized as the best British beatboxer (no, that’s not an oxymoron) and one of the world’s best, too. After serving as DJ Vadim’s protégé and being championed by The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, he travels the second, song-oriented path on Elocution, his major-label debut. Does it avoid the Lame list? Yes, it does. But it’s still overstuffed and messy, like a twice-baked potato that’s been reheated in the microwave.
If avoiding embarrassment and making a credible hip hop/pop/R&B crossover album is the goal, Elocution meets it. But if the goal is turning in a memorable collection of songs that’s going to do more than a few go-rounds on the disc changer, it fails. Admirably, Kela is going for the loose, genre-straddling experience of the best Prince albums. But if Elocution were a Prince album, it would be more Graffiti Bridge than Sign O’ the Times.
The album’s first two thirds are made up mostly of hooky, slight, but sweet R&B songs, mixing Kela’s impressive beatboxing with programmed beats and strings. The lumbering “Rave of the Future” is indicative of the problem: Kela’s light, milky singing voice and rudimentary rapping are fine; the melody’s there, but the song’s about nothing. If you’re going to have a song with a chorus like, “How did I get here in the first place / Seems like I’m stuck on sub-space”, the music and flow need to be a lot more interesting than this. With incisive strings and creeping chorus, “Secrets” is the best of this bunch; still, it could be Maroon Five. Not even Roots Manuva can salvage “Submarines”, which was written at a soundcheck and sounds like it. Lord knows Manuva’s career would be no less complete had he never uttered the couplet, “Ain’t too hard to smell a fart / Come conquer or divide me.”
The final third of the album is made of, quite simply, The Streets ripoffs. Same heavily-accented, nearly spoken-word delivery. Same world-weary-down-on-his-luck-bloke-going-through-the-daily-humdrum narrative, only not half as engaging as Mike Skinner—production-wise or lyric-wise. Sublime guest vocalist Neneh Cherry is no match for a love song entitled “Feminine”.
In Elocution‘s one interesting twist, the only real memorable songs are the somber, moody ones. “Standing in the Rain” begins just like a slowed-down version of Duran Duran’s “Careless Memories”, and then morphs into a genuinely soulful, low-key lament; a very good Prince song. The one effective rap track, “Sleeping Patterns” uses sad synths to similar effect. Both songs get a big boost from vocalist Rookwood.
The between-songs skits and live cuts showcase Kela’s formidable skills, but are completely incongruous with the songs they connect. Elocution could go down as the Best Crossover Album to Date by a British Beatboxer. A dubious proposition, indeed.