One of the inevitable truths of this life is that we must get older. Usually, it happens quietly and gradually — you wake up one morning, wondering “how did I get here?” Sometimes, it happens violently, traumatically, unforgettably. Something huge happens, and even unable to predict the future, it’s obvious that nothing will ever be the same.
It’s impossible to say whether something so traumatic or life-changing happened to RJ Krohn, better known as RJD2, but there’s no denying that his last solo release, The Third Hand, changed his audience’s perception of his music irrevocably. Where once he was a promising hip-hop producer who made magic from behind his arsenal of machines and samplers, he was now a singer-songwriter who dealt in lite AOR and vanilla soul. All of the elements of his music that had garnered him the respect of a small but rabid audience were gone, replaced by live instrumentation, average vocals, and the shadows of the beats he made not all that long ago.
The fact is, Krohn is getting older — his tastes are changing, and his desire to develop his own artistry in the direction of those tastes is understandable. The problem, then, is that he updated his craft to the point of contempt for his previous work, which then translates to contempt for an audience that adored that work. Hopefully, he was ready for that audience’s adverse reaction.
Given the response to The Third Hand, it’s hard to see RJD2’s latest effort The Colossus as anything other than a retreat to that which built his name. Granted, the emphasis here is still far more soul than hip-hop, but the sampling has returned, Krohn proves he can still craft a killer beat, and he even spreads the love when it comes to the vocal contributions on the album.
Nowhere is the regression more evident than on the many pure instrumentals that dot the album. Opener “Let There Be Horns” is a fantastic voyage through hip-hop soul music, featuring lots of cut-up string samples and matching cut-up beats. “Giant Squid” stomps its way through four minutes of deep groove, thanks to a heavily-distorted fuzz bass that cuts through the mix no matter how many things Krohn adds to it. Late track sleeper “The Stranger” is a cinematic film noir romp complete with lots of horns, muted guitars, and spooky noises. These sorts of tracks were sorely missing from The Third Hand — just how much they were missed wasn’t necessarily obvious until now. RJD2 never needed a voice to tell a story, his beats and samples were enough.
Of course, he can’t help himself — he adds vocals on “The Glow” (cheesy), “Gypsy Caravan” (ridiculous), and closer “Walk with Me” (jaunty, and actually kind of fun). That he would choose to showcase his own vocals alongside such capable performers as the underrated Kenna, whose “Games You Can Win” sneaks up on you until you can’t help but sing along, or the three-headed monster of the Catalyst, Illogic, and NP, who share the lead on “A Son’s Cycle”, seems unwise. “A Son’s Cycle” is actually an argument for RJD2 the hip-hop producer, where he takes three separate beats, hands them to three separate rappers, and somehow finds a cohesive track in all of it.
So, yes, on one hand, The Colossus is like RJD2 trying to have it both ways, appealing to what’s left of his established fanbase while still tossing in a few more of the Third Hand-esque experiments to placate his own creative urges. On the other hand, maybe this is progression. Often, maturity is defined by the ability to accept and embrace your past while still allowing yourself an open mind for the future. That his fans have such a distaste for his newer material as compared to his older material shouldn’t stifle him from following his muse. If anything, it’ll make those moments where he does placate his established fanbase sound less like pandering and more like a welcome acknowledgement of his much beloved past. The mix of the two makes The Colossus sound like a work by an artist who is maturing rather than lashing out.