[21 October 2013]
Deltron 3030’s self-titled debut came and went with little fanfare in the spring of 2000, barely cracking the Billboard 200, but it marked a bellwether moment for thousands of listless suburban youths: it clearly demonstrated the universality of hip-hop as a format. By applying the genre to a chromepunk space opera with sweeping, forward-thinking production and left-field flows about mech soldiers and papyrus, Deltron 3030 kicked the door wide open for alternative rap. In the process, it blew the door to hip-hop fandom open for a generation of suburban kids for whom mainstream hip-hop remained far outside of their cultural framework. For those of us enthralled with the power of precisely rhymed words who just couldn’t relate to anything that was rapped about on the radio, what alternative was there at the time? MC Paul Barman? Deltron 3030 was a fresh breeze from a new dimension, and as those warm beats and gentle DJ scratches washed over us, we understood what Del meant when he said, “The universe is one and I see what rap can be.”
In the 13 years since 3030, everything has become fair game in hip-hop. Geek culture has risen. Nerdcore is a profitable subgenre. Radio rappers are declaring themselves monsters, aliens, and men on the moon, and a new generation has run with the wild style. Where would Lil B’s utter lack of flow and raps about wontons be without Del the Funky Homosapien to pave the way? But all of this adds weight to the release of Event II. 13 years and countless delays in the making, this album was Detox for the alt-rap set. Expectations were impossibly high.
During the course of 3030, Deltron Zero went from a lowly former mech soldier disillusioned with the universal corporation to the leader of a rebellion that tried to reclaim the universe for free thought. He wasn’t entirely successful, but the narrative was compelling and the overall tone was light. Punchlines abounded. Del bent and shifted his voice into vocal balloon animals, intertwining narrative with wordplay that rarely left the listener feeling actually depressed over the state of our hypothetical future.
The most noticeable aspect of Event II is its darker tone. Del takes pains to show that in the year 3040 things are even worse, and the playfulness has been ratcheted down considerably. There are no goofy-voiced rap battles against bloviating mutant humanoids, but this is actually fitting. Del is no longer the scrappy rebel with a rag-tag team of rap misfits. He’s a mythical hero returning to a ravaged world. It’s antithetical to a Del project to have so few jokes—this is the man, after all, who gave us “If You Must”—but how is the hero going to look down on the destroyed world of his childhood with a grin?
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Event II is not as good as 3030. Del himself has said as much. However, Event II is still a great album, an ambitious project that attempts the impossible and nearly pulls it off. The real danger is that the casual listener will never realize this because the album starts off too straight faced. Joseph Gordon Levitt narrates “Stardate”, which sets the scene and announces the return of Deltron Zero and his sidekick Automator with as much wordy exposition as a SyFy original movie. Follow-up “The Return” is a near-seven minute laundry list of everything wrong with the planet in the ten years since the heroes left (spoiler alert: shit is bleak).
However, after “The Return”, the pace picks up. The tone lightens a welcome bit as well and stays consistent for the rest of the album thanks to Dan the Automator, who built a full-fledged dystopian-rap production suite with the help of Kid Koala’s tasteful scratching. “Talent Supercedes” and “What Is This Loneliness” are spaghetti space-western epics while “Pay the Price” keeps the narrative chugging forward with alternating tinkling keyboards and ghostly piano plunks. Hip-hop producers have long searched for ways to organically incorporate electric guitar into their music, and too often the result sounds like an amateurish mash-up. But the yearning guitar in “Nobody Can” adds a primal element to its hook, and the bending Sleigh Bells-style riff of “Melding of the Minds” plays perfectly to a guest chorus from Zack De La Rocha, with whom Del has surprising vocal chemistry.
Del’s raps are less absurdist and more subdued this time around, but he still has some great lyrical moments combining intricate rhymes with delightfully goofy threats, e.g. “I’ll kick you in the nuts so hard your heart skips a beat.” Meanwhile, wicked hooks proliferate. From “Nobody Can” to “City Rising from the Ashes” and “Do you Remember?” the hooks alone are worth the price of admission and come courtesy of a wide range of expertly-placed guests. The list is long and hints at the breadth of Del’s fan base. Who else in the indie rap game could get mainstream actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead), comedians (David Cross, The Lonely Island), musicians from every end of the spectrum (Damon Albarn, Zack de la Rocha, Black Rob, Jamie Cullum), and a superchef (David Chang) on the same album?
Perhaps the biggest strength of 3030 was its playability. The story unfolded organically over multiple listens, and Event II successfully replicates this. Listened back to back, the two albums sound like a coherent whole. The message of throwing off the shackles of a sycophantic authoritarian government may not be as novel as it was in 2000, but it’s no less potent. As of this writing, 535 extremely well-paid individuals with an approval rating of 5% have beached the U.S. government and are considering intentionally scuttling the economy as well in vain attempts to score political points. The U.S. may not be the country most in need of some heroes right now, but it’s definitely on the list.
On second thought, maybe Del and company should stay far away. Like 3030, there’s no clear end to Event II. No climactic final battle, no triumphant unchaining of mankind from the yoke of its corporate masters, just talk of “retirement to the underground” and visions of the ashes of civilization. It ends on an introspective note, a track where our hero takes off his mask and muses about the beauty of childhood imagination and the tragedy of innocence lost, ending the chorus with, “Not to get into nostalgia / but some of those things had value.” It’s a particularly somber moment in an already-somber album, but it’s unexpected and moving. It’s a reminder that a hero is, beneath the cape, just a man with ideals who refuses to give up. In the opening verse of 3030, our hero rapped “I’ll rage the grave, anything it takes to save the day.” But the day isn’t saved just yet. See you again in 3050, Del.