People Under the Stairs, the classic hip-hop duo of Thes One and Double K, has, so far, lived up to its name, both in positive and negative respects. Thes and K have never achieved fame or commercial success on any real level, but they’ve managed to grow and maintain an underground cult following over the course of their long career, straddling the difficult line between anonymity and legend status. And at the same time, they’ve been able to use their underground status to their advantage, making music for their own brand of vinyl-loving, dusty-beat hip-hop heads and reaping the old-school love. Stepfather, the latest album from the West Coast pair, is a big step away from their previous works in many respects that somehow manages to leave them right where they’ve always been.
In a world of Aesop Rocks and Busdrivers and whole strings of nimble new-school flowers, the rhyming on Stepfather is nothing mind-blowing or particularly impressive from a technical standpoint. Thes and K sound like they never left the good ol’ days, and their production style, built around an almost deliberately, nostalgically anachronistic focus on the youth of hip-hop, fits this perfectly. “The real rap came here to act young,” says Double K on “Tuxedo Rap”: it’s nothing innovative and it doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s done well and so sincerely that it rises above imitation to continuation and elevation. Stepfather is an album out of time, a vinyl-underground hip-hop record that could have been made in the old-school Golden Age. It sounds like it was truly developed “under the stairs”, if you will, fomented in its own time bubble of wax, turntablism and dopeness, a collage of scratched choruses and punchy, medium-fi drum loops.
However, that’s not a dig: Stepfather is still dope, in the clean-slow-flowing way new hip-hop records used to be dope. “Jamboree Pt. 1” is a beautifully feel-good cookout rap jam helped perfectly by its beat: the synths shimmer and slide amidst tinkly bells like the slidy soap walls of bubbles, floating in a vaguely ambient sea of cheerful whoops and cheers. PUTS flow well, and the lines are nicely observed and convey the general mood, the flow of life, well: “Word up, this girl put a spell on me/ I would have married her there, but I smelled like weed.” When the laid-back beat burbles out on “Flex Off”, they can’t hold in the love. “Sounds real good,” he smiles aloud, and it’s not the slick chromium croon we’ve come to expect from hip-hop, it’s fresh, genuinely happy. “Tuxedo Rap” is a lively groaner of a song; “Eat Street” is a gentle, harmlessly shuffling paean to fast food. PUTS even manage to snare George Clinton for an appearance on “The Doctor and the Kidd”, but he spends his time growling deep, gravelly, probably drug-related nothings in a baffling minute and a half of “you can smell it if you inhale it” and abundant references to “that rap juice”.
Thes and K get more personal than they’ve previously been as well, one change from previous albums: “I wish we could stop the thing eating Grandpa’s brain/ But all the same, who could I blame and how could I complain?/ We made it off the plane on September 10th/ July 3rd, I live to pay another month of rent/ Been getting bent on guilt,” they rap on “Days Like This”. “More Than You Know” pairs these reflections with nicely insistent piano chords, while “Reflections” introduces a new reggae bent. In fact, the looking-to-the-past production is probably still the biggest change from past albums: their sound is more varied here than before, tracks like the blandly urgent “Step In” and minimalist “Pass the 40” expanding the PUTS aural repertoire in new directions that work about as often as they don’t. If there is any major flaw to this album, it’s that too often remains merely inoffensive without becoming as truly transcendent as it could be.
All things considered, Stepfather is a solid addition to the People Under the Stairs discography that shakes things up a bit only to watch them settle right back how they’ve always been. It’s well-produced, the rapping is solid, and it sounds like it could honestly have been made in the ‘90s. Depending on your views, this is either a great thing or a good thing; it’s definitely not bad, considering certain aspects of the albums of today. If hip-hop has changed, nobody told the People Under the Stairs.