Kool Keith is a legend in every sense of the word, both good and bad. He’s made old-school history with the Ultramagnetic MCs, built up a decades-spanning discography, released classic albums from Sex Style to Black Elvis / Lost in Space and the cult favorite Dr. Octagonecologyst, run through more personalities than MF DOOM on a good day, and amassed a wealth of mythology around him, often of unverifiable veracity. Dr. Octagonecologyst, his first and, until now, only album as Dr. Octagon, has held a special place in the hearts of many Kool Keith fans and built itself a reputation as a seminal classic of underground hip-hop, but if the stories are true, it was written in one night as Keith did acid. And, true to legend, nothing Keith has done recently has been of any real note. Apart from 2004’s Diesel Truckers with Kutmasta Kurt, it’s been many years since he’s put out a significant addition to his already-extensive catalog.
The cult classic Dr. Octagonecologyst, a landmark album of dope beats and mind-bending experimental flows produced entirely by Dan the Automator, led to a dispute between the two artists, resulting in a lack of further collaborations and Keith’s killing off the Dr. Octagon character (on the intro to his album as Dr. Dooom). Demand for a follow-up album has been persistent but chronically ignored, even after the release of an unofficial, much-bootlegged fake Dr. Octagon II without Keith’s consent. With this year’s The Return of Dr. Octagon, Keith has finally resurrected his old persona, albeit without any explanation or mention of the character’s previous death and sans Dan the Automator, offering instead the less-memorable production talents of One Watt Sun.
The first real track of the album, “Trees”, is a definite highlight that gets things going on a strong note. The beat is a catchy, buzzy, even danceable (rare for Keith) combination of guitars and synthesizers, while the doctor drops his trademark off-kilter raps on, surprisingly, environmentalism. “Watch your atmosphere and pesticides / Control damaging trees and roots / A bunch of chemicals y’all turnin’ it loose”, Keith raps, in between repeated cries of “The trees are dying!”. The stuttery-plodding “Aliens” takes things deeper into left field, the haunted-house-of-the-future beat bumping deliberately onwards at changing speeds as Keith rattles off stream-of-consciousness, difficult-to-understand sprays of words.
Dr. Octagon’s lyrics on this album typically appear to be unconnected, but over the course of each track can be seen building around a general theme, be it conservation, societal conformity, American miltarism, or, yes, his characteristic fascination with sex. For instance, the lyrics can often be as obtuse as “Connect the inputs in, protected by steel carbon tin / Gasoline thrusts, seventeen point ten”, but a track like “Ants” has a clear focus, attacking the conformist aspects of American society. “Overcrowded streets, two zillion pairs of shoes, their sneakers walk the streets / Eight thousand million people swimmin’ on the beach / Ants”, Octagon spits, taking advantage of his outsider status to comment on culture. The focus on often-bizarre sex is still here, on tracks like opening skit “Our Operators Are Masturbating”, the disturbing “The Turtle Skit”, and his album-closing duet with Princess Superstar, in which she constantly references sex (“I was on a date with this really hot dude / The kind that you know would look really hot nude”) while he, confusingly, interjects with his complaints about how women only want “to go out and talk and eat”, but even the sexuality here is nowhere near the level of such over-the-top past works as the “pornocore” Sex Style.
There are, of course, tracks with much less meaning (or, at the very least, much less clear meanings), like the aptly-titled “A Gorilla Driving a Pick-Up Truck”. These are the love-or-hate-them songs that in all likelihood only obsessive fans of Kool Keith will really enjoy or take to heart. The beat is nothing stellar, and Octagon eschews rapping in favor of slowly growling the words to a semi-abstract story that’s hard to follow and, really, not that enticing or interesting to the average underground hip-hop fan. Keith overuses this dragging, rambling style here, again on “Doctor Octagon” and “It’s the Morning”; the album starts to break down here, the beats growing increasingly less compelling and the raps increasingly willfully esoteric. “A baby chimpanzee with a fur coat” and “wash your wack baseball hat with Tide” just feel lazy after a while.
In the end, The Return of Dr. Octagon is still better than anything Kool Keith’s done in a little while, but apart from its best tracks, it’s not close to the level of his finest work of the past, and it doesn’t really build much on the legend of Dr. Octagon, which still rests most firmly on the good doctor’s debut.
The Return of Dr. Octagon – Aliens