[21 November 2011]
RJD2 (born Ramble John Krohn) has been making instrumental underground hip-hop albums since 2001, after serving as DJ and producer for such underground hip-hop artists as Megahertz and Copywrite. Aaron Livingston is a fast-rising Philadelphia-based R&B-flavored vocalist, best known for singing the hook on “Guns Are Drawn” by The Roots (from their 2004 album The Tipping Point). Having previously collaborated on “Crumbs Off the Table”, the disco-flavored track from RJD2’s 2010 album, The Colossus, the pair have embarked on a full-length album together under the name Icebird. The Abandoned Lullaby, the resulting album, demonstrates some typically offbeat moments from RJD2, even if this isn’t in the same league as his best work.
The obvious comparison is with Gnarls Barkley, the other supergroup collaboration between an underground hip-hop producer and a soulful high-pitched singer. The comparisons are even more inevitable in that the album’s first song, “Charmed Life”, does bear a regrettable resemblance to “Crazy”. What’s more, there are a few songs, such as “Just Love Me” and “Wander”, which tread the same poppy neo-soul ground as Adam Levine. This fits in with the more pop-flavored work RJD2 has been making lately (such as his 2007 album, The Third Hand) but that doesn’t make it any less undistinguished. Warmed-over Maroon 5 we do not need.
On the other hand, there are some more interesting songs here. The beautiful acoustic ballad “In Exile” is a radical departure for RJD2, demonstrating a compositional complexity he’s only occasionally exhibited even in his earlier, less accessible work. Similarly, “Gun for Hire” is a dark, murky synth-rock track that fits in with some of the quirky material RJD2 released on such albums as 2002’s Dead Ringer. There’s even a thunderous rock guitar workout, “Going and Going. And Going”, that could have fit with the best of his earlier Def Jux albums, even if the chorus sounds unfortunately reminiscent of the Backstreet Boys’ “Backstreet’s Back”.
The key flaw here is that Livingston isn’t really much of a collaborator. Though he’s a decent singer, his style isn’t particularly distinctive. In addition to sounding like Levine, he sounds at times like Cee-Lo Green, Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay, and even Jason Mraz. Even worse, his lyrics are middling, and his vocal melodies often only rehash instrumental ideas. He doesn’t seem to contribute much to the music. For the most part, the album sounds like RJD2 composed all the music and left Livingston to come up with lyrics to sing on top of it, resulting in a disjointed sound that would swamp even the best vocalist. Since Livingston doesn’t seem to have much of a musical personality, he’s essentially superfluous here. The only song on the album that sounds like an actual collaboration is “The Return of Tronson”, in which Livingston’s spacey, nonsensical lyrics and atmospheric vocals fit the layered synthesizer sounds RJD2 has assembled. It’s really the one song on the album that sounds like two artists finding a common ground, rather than working separately and then gluing their portions together.
Ultimately, The Abandoned Lullaby is at least worth hearing for RJD2 fans, although musically it’s really only a lateral move. It will appeal to fans of RJD2’s more recent work, but it doesn’t build much upon it. Had he chosen a more forceful collaborator, the album might have been more than merely mildly interesting, but as it stands, there’s really not much reason to recommend it if you’re not already a fan. It’s a promising idea, but it pales in comparison with his earlier, more innovative work. Had the whole album showed the same sort of synergy it shows on “The Return of Tronson”, it would have made for a truly noteworthy release that could have served to launch a promising artistic alliance. Instead, it will make you wish RJD2 could try this idea again with another singer. It will also make you wish that RJD2 could return to the eclectic experimentalism of his earlier records. In this case, the whole ends up not much more than the sum of its parts.