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.
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?