DJ Logic returns to the instrumental turntablism game with an album that is stubbornly eclectic, tough to feel and even harder to comprehend.
Zen of Logic's mostly instrumental mix reminds me of jazz's academically minded step-brother Bebop. Like Bebop, Zen of Logic is smart and, in parts, tough to pierce. It demands engagement, cerebrally. This is clear when in "Smackness", DJ Logic loops the line: "Yo, stop frontin' and use your head". A worthy gesture, it forces you to ask if you want your music to nourish your soul or feed your head.
DJ Logic grew up in the Bronx same as hip-hop. Jazz piqued his curiosity, so he sought out and began spinning records live with real musicians perhaps -- as Wikipedia.org notes other turntablists did -- to gain legitimacy. His second album, 2001's The Anomaly, delivered legitimacy -- it was the true nexus of jazz and hip-hop three years before Nas and his trumpet-toting pops bridged the gap on Street's Disciple. At its best, the music fused turntablism and chilled out electronic jazz to the street's swagger. Five years then, since we last spoke.
The album opens with "Peace Y'all (I Am in the House)". Its epileptic drumbeat, frenzied record-scratching and sampled hip-hop sloganeering are as loose and freewheeling as it gets. But the grammatically correct phrasing (in parentheses) jolts you. It takes the street's strut to the Ivory Tower, corrects its posture and grammar and expects it to appeal to streets. Unlikely.
How else can you explain the lyrics in the three tracks with close-to conventional lyric-chorus-lyric structures? "One Time" sees an emcee named Creature shouting out the names of esoteric blacks. Name dropping Leroi Jones, nay Amiri Baraka, and Thelonious Monk serves only to exclude, and the rhyme lacks punch. Entire portions of this, and other songs, feature infuriating lyrics from cerebral MCs who pen lyrics about excimer dust (?). Comprehension requires an encyclopedia and demands a level of interaction that delays reward, however rewarding. This, if you haven't guessed, is what Logic wants.
As this is cerebral music, it must be worldly. Logic borrows from the East Indies its voices and bhangra rhythm for "Something Distant", which plods on three minutes after it should end. Already this year, we've had beat-obsessed albums from J Dilla (Donuts) and Madlib (The Beat Konducta Vol. 1-2). In under three minutes (and often under two), their songs say more than Logic's with less. Near the halfway point of his too-long songs, the initial thrust shifts into a monotonous crawl.
"Afro Beat" is the magnificent exception. A high-tempo, funk-filled excursion set to the rhythm of Mother Africa, it's the best Zen of Logic has to offer and features Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra (also on Ropeadope). Its jubliant horns drive you to the brink, the organ demands you dance, and the scratching sounds tight. It's as immediate as Logic's previous work, something that feels improvised rather than meticulously planned.
Compared to J Dilla and Madlib's albums, most of this disc sounds dull. All the ambient, avant-garde posturing that made this genre fascinating can't hide its pretentiousness.
By virtue of his name, Logic is a thinker. He stopped making music for the street when he found jazz. Maybe Zen of Logic is challenging my mind when I want to be moved, but when a songs references Katrina, "9th Ward Blues", and fails to send ripples of recognition cascading through your body, why bother?