What do Doomtree hope to accomplish with All Hands? This isn’t a rhetorical question or an attempt to chide: I’d like, sincerely, to know what it is they were seeking when they began cobbling this album together and how that goal might have changed in the recording process. The Minneapolis rap collective’s never made bones about the fact that their work is ideologically motivate — their unofficial motto,”No Kings!” makes it rather clear what they think of authority figures — and that clarity’s always been a strength, so it’s something of a mystery that All Hands came out such a confused mess. Even the title, evocative at a glance, breaks down under a bit of scrutiny. “All hands on deck!” is an emergency call, a response to a threat so great it requires everyone on the ship to handle, but what threat was so pressing that it required every member of Doomtree to collaborate on this clutter?
Whatever it is, it’s got the group riled up and everyone’s eager to do something about it, with P.O.S. on the verge of going vigilante. There are more than a few references to Bernard Goetz and Charles Bronson, a comparison he’s been making since his second solo album. Sims, who’s quicker to identify with Travis Bickle, is set to join him. But the targets they call out are maddeningly vague. There’s much noise made of “campaigns, big banks,” police brutality, “class-wars,” and “outmoded ideas about now,” but it’s not given any kind of presence. Very little is ever made concrete. The most solid references made are rattled off verses dense with pop-culture allusions that are more glib than clever. Sims’ boast that he’s “like David Lynch,”, Mike Mictlan’s off-hand mention of warp-whistles and Second Life, and P.O.S.’s decision to compare himself to Vint Cerf (and, in the same verse, John Candy) all sound like part of a clumsily constructed code intended less to convey a message to other would-be revolutionaries than to alienate anyone so uncool as to be left outside of the Doomtree circle.
The resulting fusion of disdain, self-congratulations (the group’s self-appointed title of “Generation Generators” may be the most obnoxious example of this imaginable; little coincidence that “Generator,” which opens on those words, is the most obnoxious song on the album), sanctimony and abstraction often makes it difficult to listen to the music. The melancholy bounce of “.38 Airweight” and the lo-fi bleeps that pepper it serve as the perfect backdrop for P.O.S’s ability to whip from fury to defeat and contrast well with Mictlan’s bark, but are too much at conflict with the actual lyrics. If the spacey synthetics of “Mini-Brute” mesh perfectly with Dessa and P.O.S.’s open vocals during the chorus they then sound too airy during the crunchy verses. Even the most catching song, “Marathon”, would be better served if it stopped before the second half, where it squanders the tension established by the wire-taut edge of the first three verses.
This obsessive attempt to cram as many members of the Doomtree collective into every song might stem from a communal impulse but it only seems to spark conflict. Each member suddenly has to work triple to distinguish themselves from the other members, which results in each rapper trying to outperform every other rapper. Who can throw in the most obscure references? Who can sound the most furious? Who can pull off the wildest linguistic tricks? The result is an album that’s simply too confused to provide the kind of example Doomtree hopes it will and too taxing to properly enjoy. It works best as a reminder that these are some of the best solo talents working in hip-hop today.