Music

RJD2: The Colossus

RJD2 attempts to rebound from the contempt his fans hold for previous full length The Third Hand.


RJD2

The Colossus

Contributors: Kenna, Phonte Coleman, Aaron Livingston, The Catalyst, Illogic, NP, Heather Fortune
Label: RJ's Electrical Connections
US Release Date: 2010-01-19
UK Release Date: 2010-02-01
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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.

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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