When the first album from Cincinnati's Five Deez came out, I gave it about 20 minutes, thinking, "Hmm. Techno-hop. Interesting", before unceremoniously shelving it. When the Tortoise remix of "Sexual for Elizabeth" dropped, I mused on how that group was creatively saving itself from the sinking ship of post-rock, rather than taking a second look at a hip-hop group open-minded enough to hand their work over to a bunch of Chicago geeks. When Fat Jon's solo instrumental album came out, only one word crossed my mind -- "soft" -- before that, too, went back to the racks. Whether or not any of these dismissals were warranted is beside the point; the upshot is I'm now kicking myself like a retarded mule, because Kinkynasti is amazing, and I have officially been caught sleeping.
Following an abstract, drifting intro, the title track gets the album started properly with a fierce lattice of bumping drums, chopped vocals, and swinging disco violins. The energy level is instantly off the scale, and that's before the three MCs hit the ground running with a string of traditional but incredibly tight battle verses. It's a rare and beautiful moment, like just before the roller-coaster drops into infinity, when you suddenly realize that you may be in for more than you bargained for. The track's mix of tight melody and edgy vocals separates Five Deez from almost every other underground group out there, but the difference is hard to quantify until you get a little deeper into the album, and a little deeper into producer Fat Jon's world. The second track, "The Boostin' Jam", takes the ever-popular rhymin' and stealin' combo and puts it over a fast but understated beat, one that, with all its shadowy background echoes and sweet-tripping synths, could rest comfortably on one of the "Another Late Night" comps. But the straightforward, even somewhat hard vocals pull the track firmly back into hip-hop territory.
This tension is the main source of Kinkynasti's uniqueness, and the dichotomy mostly rests within the serene form of Fat Jon himself -- he's a hip-hop producer who has been profoundly influenced by modern dance music, absorbing it and assimilating it into his own productions in revitalizing ways. The sheer velocity with which Kinkynasti gets rolling dispelled any of my previous misapprehensions of softness and replaced them with an almost religious reverence for Jon's production, which is unlike anything else out there right now -- an amazing mix of innovative breaks and effortlessly catchy melodies, spanning moods from hardcore to sensual without ever sounding less than unique. That he has been influenced by various electronic styles is not surprising, considering he's lived in Germany for a while, but what's amazing is that he avoids making the "Techno-hop" I had earlier dismissed. Rather than simply turning up the BPMs and dropping in some drum 'n' bass, or taking the big, unrelenting, funkless rhythms of Trance as his own (or, for that matter, revisiting the "glitch hop" already mined to death by Funkstorung, Push Button Objects, and Prefuse 73), he's focused on the feeling of dance music and injected his hip-hop with the best of this without overtly adopting any of techno's banal tropes.
What ravers everywhere are in search of is an experience of their bodies and reality as something other than what it is: not an escape from physicality, but its transformation from workaday exhaustion and complexity into pure and simple ecstasy; not the elimination of time, but its transformation into a singular extended moment of solid and infinite forward motion. Hip-hop, by contrast, is almost always an earthbound footrace, anchored in space by the physicality of the sonic palette and propelled in time by the irreversible flow of lyrics into one another. What I had first taken as softness is just Fat Jon's preference for smooth, clean sounds, from those violins to harps and flutes to, perhaps most important, his undistorted, understated drum sounds, all of which lend his tracks a dreamlike, sunny-day-in-spring quality. When Jon most lets his electronic steez take over, as on the funky trance of "We Rock On", the listener gets that coveted sensation of timelessness, that endless sound-circle, while still, thanks to the relatively rugged vocals, remaining grounded.
The closest the album comes to weakness are the repeated moments when, despite their protestations to the contrary, the group are all too easily mistaken for "some neo-soul gospel rappers". Not surprisingly, these are exclusively confined to tracks about girls and sex, such as the laconic verses and loping Spanish guitar of "Sextraterrestrial", or the shimmying mutual appreciation of "I Like It". These are still great, but they do collapse the gap between the tracks and the raps, the tension between musical hedonism and vocal 'realness' reducing to one unified line of half-sincere imprecations and slow-rolling keyboards, barely distinguishable from the dozens of similar tracks on albums by Hi-Tek (also from Cincinatti), the Roots, or the Black Eyed Peas. Clearly that's not bad company, but these tracks shy away from the bold steps Five Deez should be taking more of.
It's when Jon takes risks behind the boards that the Deez come into their own. In addition to "The Boostin' Jam" and "Funky", there's "Tonight", which Jon starts out with a drifting synth and backgrounded dance beat, before dropping in a zooming bassline and a hyperspeed snare-centric break under the doubletime verses. The subject is once again women, but this would never be dismissed as neo-soul. Then there's "B-girl", whose muted trumpets and subtle synths draw a direct line between Fat Jon and Tortoise, and color the straight-outta-1984 chorus chant ("Go B-girl, get busy / You know they don't want it!") with a blue tinge of melancholy. In the end it's difficult to pin down exactly what makes the Five Deez sound so unique. Fat Jon's cipher of influence obviously extends far beyond hip-hop, encompassing club dance, jazz, and experimental electronics (he recently cut some tracks with intellectual dub crafter Pole), but he processes these influences through a singular vision that makes drawing concrete connections difficult. What comes out is beautiful, funky, propulsive, and dreamy, but it is also undeniably hip-hop, and anything but soft.