The subject of today's evisceration is the new record from King Britt called Adventures in Lo-Fi. Sadly, the title is a lie: this record is not very lo-fi at all, due to Britt's skill as a producer (for a critical genuflection, check my review of his Scuba record). And, ultimately, and just as sadly, it's not all that adventurous either.
But you wouldn't know that from the concept. This LP is the latest release from BBE's "Beat Generation" series, which aims to give artists the chance to do records they've always wanted to do but have never gotten around to. And Britt, who started off as the DJ for Digable Planets (remember them? Well, if you do, you're old like that) has been wanting to get back to his roots for a while. "I had always wanted to make an all hip-hop LP . . . I just hadn't gotten around to it." he says on the one-sheet. He then goes on to declare that this is a concept album based on the John Sayles film Brother From Another Planet, which is one of the films that never fails to blow me away every time I see it, which has been a lot. So I (King Britt worshipper that I've turned out to be) headed into this record all geeked up.
Maybe it's just my heightened expectations ("it's not you, it's me"), or maybe I'm just generally crabby these days, but I don't think my disappointment in this record has to do with either of those factors. I think, ultimately, that the whole thing was half-baked from the beginning. First off, there are only a handful of tracks that even suggest the Sayles film, and they just about all happen at the beginning of the disc.
The heavy lifting is supposed to be done by Philadelphia DJ/spoken-word artist/scenester Rich Medina, who is supposed to be the voice of the Brother . . . but things start out inauspiciously with his opening track, "Planetary Analysis". I love Medina's voice (deeper even than J5's Chali 2na, bristling with intelligence), and I think he's probably a hell of a slam poet, but this track goes all wrong real soon; first, Medina takes us to task for all being whiners, and then he goes on to whine about everything. You kind of shoot yourself in the foot when your "chorus" goes "Complaint is nothing more than a notion / To be filed and forgotten / Problem is, most of these people here got no cabinets", and then you spend the rest of the track listing your own complaints, which include American capitalism and materialism, police misconduct, and both black activism and blacks who aren't activists.
But this would all be tolerable if the backing track backed it up. But it doesn't. I'll just say it: the production on this record bores me silly. Nothing here is less than lovely and smoothed-out, and that works fine on his other concept records and in his techno work as Scuba, but it turns out to be exhausting on what is supposed to be a hip-hop record. It's like Britt has never heard Wu-Tang or the Neptunes or Timbaland or El-P or any of the hip-hop producers of the last decade who have proven that you can be interesting and innovative and still make it bump. Hell, Jam Master Jay and the Bomb Squad and Jazzy Jeff surpassed this record all back before 1986.
Take Capitol A's track "Caught Out (There)", for example. Cap's got a real-man voice and a stream-of-hard-knocks flow, and the interaction between producer and MC is tight-all the lines come back to the same sample of the word "there": "Ain't nothin' but pure adrenalin flowin' / I think you know where this is goin' / That's right, dude / 'THERE' / Is the place where you face the fire / Flame-throwin', it's a shame that you had to be / 'THERE'", etc. It's definitely masterfully done, with perfect hi-fi sound, shimmering echoes, and a percussion sound halfway between a hi-hat cymbal and a typewriter. But the bass doesn't kick, and the electric piano sample sounds like it's supposed to help people go to sleep. Hip-hop should NOT be a soporific!
Similarly, Grand Agent's "Stay Free" could be an interesting piece, due to the MC's weird neo-conservative approach ("That's passé, like blamin' the white man" is a brave little lyric, there) and his drawling approach. But the track hasn't progressed past the first A Tribe Called Quest album, with its muted shuffly drums and called-out female gospel intoning the title. No advancement has been made.
So maybe it's not about one producer's progress, or his innovative vision for what hip-hop could be, or even about Brother From Another Planet (despite a nod in that direction on Bahamadia's track and a couple more brief-ass reappearances by Rich Medina). Maybe this is just supposed to be "Britt assembles a bunch of his Philly rhyme cohorts and makes some smoothed-out tracks for them to spit on." But that doesn't really get it either, because the MCs involved mostly just sound either bored or like they're afraid of testing that standard-issue one-size-fits-all undie backpack rap envelope. Dice Raw, familiar to Roots fans from his many guest appearances, doesn't do his reputation as rap's most slept-on and underappreciated stud any favors: "They claim they hot / Couldn't boil the water in pots / Burn the flesh off they bones / Leave they flesh to rot", ho-hum. Rep means nothing if you don't back it up.
And it (mostly) just plays out like that. Kai Chi, an up-and-comer, has a nice little old-school Pharcyde-esque style, but is content to lay back with the chill-out track he's saddled with. Will Brodie's "Apollo Creed" sounds like SO MANY OTHER TRACKS that I can't even list them here.
And let's just say that rap has reached a new low with the track called "Emotional Quotient Deringer of Chiek Anta Diop", which "features" a "rapper" with the fucked-up moniker Rilners jouegck: dacered onnle. (No, that's not a whole bunch of typos. I checked it several times myself.) Whoever this person is, it's clear that he was on special SD-6 orders to try to destroy hip-hop music from within, by issuing a track that relies exclusively on a whole bunch of long-ass vocabulary words strung together with neither rhyme nor reason behind any of it. I quote, with some trepidation: "Xylophone lipid trolley-built theophany / Micro-string pulsar bayonets wind sovereignty / Taxidermist / Legionnaire indexing chivalrous saloon girth". I wish to sweet sweet jesus I was making any of this up. Note to Rilners jouegck: dacered onnle -- the next time you're trolling through your unabridged dictionary for more words to slap down randomly in an attempt to mimic real rappers, please look up the pronunciation of "sepulchre." You'll thank me later. (Man, I'm burning all my bridges in Philadelphia. Too bad, man: I love that town.)
Not everything here is quite so soporific or offensive. Bahamadia is always great, and her track "Trancend" almost manages to. (Transcend, I mean.) Quasimoto is a funky freak, and his triple-word-play on "Spaces" is at best hilarious and at worst at least original. I like Mosez Gunn's "About Face", and Miss Saigon gets fresh with the Frenchified style on a sexy track called "Che Sara Sara". And Cherrywine, who used to be known as Butterfly back when he was the main Digable Planet guy (and that group has taken such a backlash-hit that it's no wonder he changed his name), proves that his forced exile from hip-hop was unfair; he's still got what used to be called "mad skillz", and a jazzy flow, and an ace vocabulary. But "The Sound" isn't going to rehabilitate his rep, because it fails to stand out. (With its sound, that is.)
Look, no one is more surprised than me that I can't stand up for this record. Maybe it IS just me, you know? Maybe I'm just being too critical -- maybe the world does need another 70-plus minutes of overly mannered chill-hop, showcasing some of Philadelphia's most okay rappers. But I just wish that King Britt had taken some chances, here, or put the same kind of heart and love and genre-knowledge into this that he puts into his pop and dance music.