Mike Ladd is caught between a rock and a hard place. Throughout his already-exhaustive career, he’s been on the verge of crafting hip-hop’s answer to a Philip K. Dick novel, and with 2000’s Welcome to the Afterfuture, he just about did it, melting down the essence of both Saul Williams and Deltron 3030 into one cohesive (and stunning) rap album.
Yet for a rapper/producer/poet as talented as Ladd, his muse can be surprisingly fleeting. He staged an imaginary war between an indie-leaning faux-rap collective (called The Infesticons) and a blinged out mainstream hip-hop parody (the fabulous Majesticons) just for the hell of it. He also has released increasingly-erratic solo records in the wake of Afterfuture, and—to some fans—it may seem like Ladd has gradually turned from King of the Backpackers into an experimental word sage, dropping his Run-DMC lyric sheets for a collegiate thesaurus. Yet when his Afterfuture follow-up (Negrophilia: The Album) dropped in 2005, the gradual shift away from his patented sci-fi sound was somewhat inexplicable, and, as we now know, it was because we weren’t actually getting the whole story. A year before, he dropped Nostalgialator in Europe, a disc that hasn’t made its way to American shores until now (thanks to his frequent collaborators over at Def Jux). What we get isn’t really much of a “missing link” in terms of Ladd’s musical development; instead, we get a party-starting robo-funk disc that shows the favored underground rapper having the most fun that he’s had in ages.
With a tight lineup of backing musicians, Nostalgialator immediately announces itself as an album filled with stadium-sized block rockin’ beats. After all, if Ladd’s Majesticons project taught him anything, it’s that tight, catchy harmonies are the best way to feed his otherworldly rhymes to the masses. Do we know what the line “Brando puttin’ on a lawn show” means? Of course not; but when Ladd blurts it out over a stop-start guitar-stutter that would do DJ Shadow proud, it’s hard to come down hard on such abstractions. Hell, even the opening track—a stadium rocker called “Dire Straits Plays Nuremberg” that sounds suspiciously like an El-P production—opens with a sample of a cheering crowd and Ladd’s own shouted-through-a-megaphone vocals, almost as if Ladd is acknowledging the commercial possibilities that Nostalgialator has. “Learn to Fall” could double-over as a minimalist David Byrne single, the playful “Housewives at Play” is your soundtrack for Saturday night social drinking, and no Ladd song has ever roared as hard as “Wild Out Day”, filled with punk guitars and scratchy horn samples that Ladd giddily rambles over, almost as if every second could potentially be his last (so he might as well fit in as many words as he can).
Musically, Nostalgialator is stunning. Lyrically, Ladd winds up delivering more of the same. For those unfamiliar, this occasional-beat-poet tends to balance his albums with both actual rap songs and spoken-word pieces that are largely hit or miss. On “How Electricity Really Works”, Ladd spouts the following over futuristic Muzak synths:
The buildings are made of lightning
Benjamin Franklin in eternal shock
Kite with key in hand after all these years
He is the ghost atop these towers, jumping from peak to peak
Like Jack Frost or Sandman
[…] His skin sags like muddy bags of rocks hauled from a mine
His clothes tattered and singed, he glows from radiation
It has been so many years
Though Ladd is always a compelling speaker, it’s hard to tell exactly what the point of all his monologues are. “Electricity” is no exception: is it about the monopolization of mankind’s discoveries? The ascension of humans to deity status through their ideas? These are questions to be answered by English majors, but not semi-casual hip-hop fans. Though there’s nothing wrong with Ladd’s widescreen Todd Haynes-like ambition, his vernacular-centered detours still sound out of place on album where one song’s hook is “she touch you like she touch me? / you touch her like she touch me?”, all crooned over sexy funk guitars and a driving beat.
This isn’t the end of Ladd’s lyrical schizophrenia either. On “Black Orientalist”, he still manages to drop cringe-inducing lines like “Gold-front megaphone blastin’ out the Hamptons / A blast from the past is a gas sometimes”, and—conversely—is able to drop amazing character portraits like the public chaos scenario of “Wild Out Day” where his imagery is as vibrant as it is gorgeous: “Downtown, uptown, back again / Shit, talkin’ on the subway about the gangs / […] Comin’ out the station, sky’s like a TV / Blue like a VCR, switched on”. Toss in the amazing, delightful spiritual-styled closer “Sail Away Ladies”, and you got yourself one crazy, haphazard album where the sheer entertainment value manages to outshine any of Ladd’s lyrical shortcomings.
Twenty years from now, when all is said and done, Mike Ladd’s career is going to be one of the most fascinating canons to get the analytical treatment, as his discs are filled with countless genre detours and surprisingly-justified indulgences. He truly lives and works by his own rules, and though he may never write anything as innocuous as Pitbull’s “Go Girl”, it always feels like he could snag fleeting mainstream success like that if he wanted. Fortunately for us, however, he doesn’t, instead leaving behind fantastic albums like Nostalgialator instead. Thanks for making the right choice, Mike Ladd.