[9 June 2014]
There was a time when a double album from Kool Keith would have been an event. After breaking away from the forward-thinking Bronx troupe Ultramagnetic MCs in the mid-‘90s, the rapper released four solo albums credited to four different personas. All of them pushed the boundaries of hip-hop structure and storytelling, and all of them were stuffed with polysyllabic streams of consciousness made up of equal parts sexual and scatological obsessions and fever dream imagery that would make William S. Burroughs raise an eyebrow (e.g. “In my real world, orangutans dance for Thanksgiving with skeleton bones and skunk tails”).
So if Keith’s latest effort, the 27-track, 104-minute Demolition Crash, came out in 2000 on the heels of the rubbery sci-fi opus Black Elvis/Lost In Space, fans would have been salivating. Imagine what this guy could do with no time limit or label strictures, with the freedom to explore the depths of his desires, fears and obsessions? It would be anticipated as the Encyclopedia Britannica of underground hip-hop, the weirdo Wu-Tang Forever, the street Ulysses.
If I’m taking up too much real estate waxing poetic about this hypothetical situation, it’s because I’d rather not explore the reality of Demolition Crash. But alas, we must. This double album is just the latest example of an artist unhinged, a man who has spent the 21st century seemingly daring his fans to stay loyal with a steady stream of albums and mixtapes that find him unfocused at best, uninterested at worst. It’s full of lazily vulgar verses that sound like freestyles, purposefully bad singing that’s hard to take as anything but an insult, and unfunky, atmospheric beats that could’ve been arranged on a keyboard. Keith’s misogyny is no longer a fictional character trait, his egomania no longer backed up by his chops. We’ve had 14 years of him running rampant with his artistic freedom, and it’s never been more obvious that he needs the stabilizing influence and instincts of a quality producer. Now more than ever, he’s Magneto without his helmet.
“I’m Kanye/I move the West,” Keith raps over the ethereal synths of the album’s promising intro, “Jiggaman Part 2”. It’s one of two times that Keith references the artist on Demolition Crash, and let’s hope that’s an invitation. (Imagine a Kool Keith record with West at the helm, channeling his unstable tendencies, using them to fuel music that’s both nakedly emotional and readymade for Motorola commercials. Ok ok, back to the review.) Unfortunately, the album’s boring, unchecked bravado instructs us to take these lines at face value. Keith just thinks he’s as big as Kanye, and he wants to let us know.
Perhaps the most heinous bit of ungrounded ego is “Paradise”, where the artist just laundry lists New York City arenas over muddy drums and a synth loop that sounds like a third-generation dub. “Hammerstein, Carnegie Hall, Radio City, Madison Square, the Barclay Center, it’s all mine,” he boasts. Such an obviously incorrect announcement could be fun if delivered with the manic, winking energy of the Keith of old. But here, he just states it, barely even attempting to syncopate the words. By the fourth or fifth reading, it’s unbearable.
You could make the argument that there’s a passable work of art to be pulled out of this aptly named album’s wreckage. Some of the guest MCs lift the occasional song into something resembling a groove, especially Santa on “I Can Make This Work”. With her infectious swagger, she single-handedly makes good on the promise of the song title. And there is the occasional glimmer of Kool Keith genius to be unearthed. On the disc one closer “Ricky Flair”, he compares himself to a buzzard and then invites you into his kitchen, singing “I got the butter on that turkey/Shootin’ it in the oven like James Worthy” in his best goofball stoner tenor. On the disc two slow jam perversion “Euphoric R&B” he shares matter of factly, “I send my used underwear in the mailbox/She call back and say thanks.”
But this kind of lyric sheet spelunking should be reserved for only the more fervent Keith followers. Because to get to those paltry highlights, you have to sit through songs like “Freak Out”, which pairs a loop of a woman groaning with lines like “take this dick and gag.” In his prime, Kool Keith’s songs could be trashy. But this is just garbage.