CunninLynguists: Oneirology

After some light-hearted Strange Journeys, one of the most under-appreciated hip-hop acts around returns with their first album since 2007's Dirty Acres, focusing on the nature of dreams.



Label: QN5
US Release Date: 2011-03-22
UK Release Date: Import

Sometimes, an album can present a critic with so many possible angles it becomes stupefying trying to pick out how its review should begin and proceed onward. Oneirology is one such album for me, colliding together so many recent events in my life both private and public as to call my entire reaction to it into question. I've personally never trusted a reviewer who develops a real emotional bond with an album (see: my own review of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), and I also find it hard to trust reviewers who've had communication (positive or negative) with the artist in question (see: myself with Kno). So I essentially don't trust myself to review this album properly, and thus have to admit as much before I talk about it all. I have to, because I can see some folks thinking I'll be writing the following out of guilt, for both those things that happened in public and the life I live on my own time. But I want to emphasize that Oneirology is a fantastic album whether you consider it perfect or flawed, and stands head and shoulders above what rap has offered in 2011 so far on its music alone. What I'm about to write comes from a purely subjective place, but not an emotionally charged one.

In the world of CunninLynguists, and hip-hop heads in general, there are other albums and then there's A Piece of Strange. Thanks to a complex web of deft lyricism and thematic production, A Piece of Strange became perhaps the first concept album since Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves to tell a story from start to finish with supreme efficiency. A Piece of Strange certified Kno as one of hip-hop's most visionary ringleaders, and proved that Deacon the Villain and newcomer Natti could no longer be considered basic underground rappers. The album is widely recognized as one of hip-hop's great achievements of the past 10+ years, and with great reason. But I argue that Oneirology is better, and not just by a little. I'd argue that Oneirology is a canon release, an album for whom negativity seems moot in the face of all it brings to the table. Natti and Deacon still sound very similar, a la Pusha T and Malice in 2002, and their deliveries are still not the sorts that feel world class. But lyrically, Natti has caught up to and surpassed Deacon (don't take that as Deacon slipping, though) to become one of the foremost conceptual writers in the game today. Whether he's personifying a drug, discussing his weed habit, dissecting the essence of dreams both American and personal, or lamenting dead relationships, his verses never waver.

And trust, the subject matter of Oneirology is some heavy stuff. Kno's solo album last winter, Death Is Silent, may have worried some listeners that Kno was slipping into too comfortable a position with his production, and too emo a direction with his lyrics. But by assessing the album's title as an opportunity to not only examine the nature of dreams, but the American Dream, swiftly advancing technology eradicating local communities, drug abuse, political malfunction, and many more heady subjects, the group takes the lessons learned from A Piece of Strange and its looser, more listenable follow-ups and crafts a total masterpiece.

The group invites nicer MCs like Freddie Gibbs (whose "Hard as They Come" verse ranks among the young year's very best, perhaps even one of his personal greatest), Big K.R.I.T., and QN5 member Tonedeff to add variety to the proceedings, while Kno's production perfectly balances the thematic unity of A Piece of Strange with the musical elements that has made his production from Dirty Acres onward so engrossing. Like Kanye's masterwork, Oneirology's production moves beyond that of typical hip-hop, adding and subtracting elements with a surgical precision very, very few hip-hop producers even hint at being capable of. The easiest example is his extremely comfortable use of vocalists like Anna Moon and Rick Warren to enhance and build on the existing material, rather than make the guest vocalists feel like the central figures of the piece.

His samples here also rank among the best of his career. The "If I could get away with murder, I'd take my gun and I'd commit it" chorus of "Murder" coexists perfectly with Big K.R.I.T.'s impression of a modern President's attitude, while the way he balances Biggie's "It was all a..." against a gong smash that instantly sounds and feels like Biggie huffing "DREAM!" on the album's intro immediately sucks you into what the rest of the disc has to offer. There's also the super raw lead guitar work on lead single "Stars Shine Brightest", and the codas he affixes to tracks not to show off but to ease listeners into the next track as though all 15 were meant to be one. There's the great soul sample on "Embers", the smart use of "So as Not to Wake You" as a DJ Shadow-like interlude from the more conceptual tracks to the more personal ones, rather than try to make a hip-hop track out of it. It's just a Masters course on what it should take to be a premier level hip-hop producer, the sort of end result that makes one wonder why guys like Alex da Kid are being asked to create our pop songs.

Whatever grace that dude refuses to muster for his music, Kno employs in spades throughout Oneirology. The end result is an album not as linear as A Piece of Strange, but certainly as focused conceptually, and definitely more easy to listen to and more varied in sound. His rapping still doesn't feel as vibrant as it had on the group's earlier work (particularly on "Enemies With Benefits", an excellent verse that's marred by his demo-quality delivery), but it's definitely not as morose and tuneless as his solo effort, either. Ultimately, his and the voices of Natti and Deacon are all that hold this back from getting the perfect 10 it deserves, only because when Gibbs, K.R.I.T., Tonedeff and Tunji stop by they all sound way more natural as rappers, even as the CunninLynguists proper more than keep up on the lyrical end. But if the only complaint I can muster about Oneirology is that Natti and Deacon have good but not great voices, well...does it even matter?


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.