Canadian hip-hop eccentric Socalled is known mostly as the dude who meshed Klezmer – the traditional Jewish dance music – with hip-hop. His last album, 2007’s Ghettoblaster, was an odd and brilliant album, one that subverted our ideas of what hip-hop could be by playing with both new influences and different structures. On top of his seamless meshing of Klezmer styles and sounds, he also shifted the shape of verses, so that songs often morphed as they go.
The real success in all of this, though, is that none of this sounds like novelty. What makes his music stand out isn’t that it involves an influence not usually represented in rap music; it’s that he executes it so well. At base, Socalled’s talent as a musician and producer is breaking down the walls around different genres, meshing disparate elements in culture to make a new fascinating whole. He’s unapologetically quirky – even nerdy, in the best way possible – but his music never feel pretentious or weird for weird’s sake. His patchwork musical vision and playful eccentricity continue on his latest record, Sleepover, and they feel as fresh as they ever have.
The one thing to note right up front is that the Klezmer influence takes a backseat on this record. It’s there, without a doubt, but this is an album more concerned with other traditions. In some ways, it comes off as more of an R&B record than a hip-hop record. Socalled rarely raps himself, yielding a few verses to other emcees like compatriot C-Ray Walz. Instead we get a lot of singing from the beautiful voice of Katie Moore and guest spots from other singers like Roxanne Shante. The use of soul music here, and these smooth singers, makes for a less frantic sound than we heard on Ghettoblaster. If that record was about knocking down cultural walls, this is about the sweet synthesis that happens long after those borders have blurred.
Perhaps that more relaxed feeling makes the unfailing optimism of the record feel so honest and believable. These songs deal in plainspoken declaration. “Work With What You Got” is all about personal power. “If you have an idea, just think it,” the song insists. “Kid Again” returns again and again to the line, “When I grow up I just want / want to be a kid again,” in a way that embraces both responsibility and a more carefree joie de vivre. “Beautiful” is a brilliant bit of Stax balladry all about loving someone for what they are. It’s a basic sentiment – bordering on schmaltz – but it’s also guileless and soulful enough to make it work.
The album also takes a few darker turns to solid effect. The troubling shuffle of “Told Me So” is drenched in regret. Moore’s voice is strained, high and cracking, as she pines “I can’t believe you left me when I told you go.” The music behind here is just as shadowy and dragged down, with keening flutes and aching voices sampled into the mix to haunt it perfectly. “(Oh No There’s) No More Snow” is where we hear the most rapping from Socalled on the record, and he laments climate change with an impressively smooth flow that makes you wish he spit more here. It’s another song that’s a bit on the nose, but the funky beat – with a great tumbling bass line – sells it. The strangest track here is “Springhill Mine Disaster”, a Celtic-folk number patched into the middle of a hip-hop/R&B record. The piano work nearly connects it to the rest of the record, but mostly it’s a bold tangent on an otherwise cohesive album, and the jarring shift makes for one of the more inspired moments on Sleepover.
The subtlety he brings to these beats here is a nice evolution from the more self-conscious layers of Ghettoblaster, but it can border on simplicity. Opener “UNLVD” is full with horns and odd samples, but they don’t stop it from feeling like early-’90s R&B radio fodder. On the other end of the record, the closing title track, is charming in its goofball approach to a party tune, but when the line “Girls in their nightgowns, we gonna pull their panties down” repeats, it’s neither funny enough to be a joke nor a convincing shift to discussing sex for Socalled.
Sleepover, though, hits far more than it misses, and shows a fine, streamlined step forward in Socalled’s sound. He doesn’t push too hard to be an outlier here, and instead lets his eccentricities show in more deeply embedded and convincing ways. Still, you can’t help but miss the excitement that came from the brash production of Ghettoblaster, and while the sense of community on this record is heartening, Socalled lets himself get lost in the shuffle a bit too often. He lets his production do the talking here, but in doing so he drowns out the best tool in his repertoire: his personality.