One of the great cult figures in hip-hop, Kool Keith has forged a career defined by numerous eccentricities. His famous libidinous wordplay is often genuinely transgressive, while his personas are manifold and often disarmingly surreal. Then there’s his unrelenting musical output, which totals over 50 full-length releases. The whole character is so fascinatingly dense that Kool Keith himself (real name: Keith Thornton) has admitted, “I don’t even feel like a human being anymore.”
Despite his relentless creative drive, even this legendary workhorse was slowed down by the Covid-19 pandemic. His only release in 2020 was a wonderfully crazed collaborative album with Nashville-based powerviolence band Thetan. Otherwise, it appears that Kool Keith spent much of the year in a similar state of limbo as the rest of the planet. Perhaps it gave him time to reflect and slow down for a comparative moment because his newest release Keith’s Salon is an excellent album, one of the most forward-thinking and disciplined works of his entire career.
Kool Keith is many things, however ‘disciplined’ has rarely ever been one of them. He wields an arsenal of postmodern trickery, utilizing allusion, meta-referencing, irony, and plurality to create a constantly shifting persona defined by arch, surrealist humor. Some common traits and themes run through his work (see the first paragraph). However, they are overlain by an ever-present unpredictability, a sense that there’s a perpetual punchline ready to be sprung.
Impressively, Keith’s Salon is one of the least trick-leaden albums Kool Keith has ever released. He’s still performing as a character, mocking the hip-hop cliches of women, cars, and violence. However, the album’s thematics of beauty and the pitfalls that come with trying to attain it are tackled with incisive wit and brio. Tracks like “Yatchs” and “Bright Eyes” are leaden with references to Bugattis, sneakers and swimming pools, consumer items that are deftly equated with the hollowness of those “who want exposure”.
He’s still performing from behind a mask, and at this point, as he has admitted, we’ll most likely never hear from the ‘real’ Kool Keith, who might not even exist. There are only two things that we know for sure: one – that he revels in ridiculing hip-hop culture, which he does here with his usual aplomb, and two – that he is truly obsessed with bodies and sexuality.
Even on a release as relatively tasteful as Keith’s Salon, every track features a litany of corporeal and graphic rhymes. He doesn’t solely rely on literal descriptions. However, there’s still plenty of those, but manages to make a simple description of food into something dirty (“Extravagance”), or conjure up a fleshy and filthy lexical set of “secretion”, creamy”, “swallow” and countless others (“Clams”). It’s uncomfortable at times – intentionally so, but the descriptions remain oddly compelling due to the sheer absurdity of their cadence, structure, and juxtaposition.
Bolstering this verbal madness is some exceptional production. Whereas much of Kool Keith’s work has been content to parody the more gaudy, ostentatious aspects of rap production, Keith’s Salon is decidedly more singular and experimental. Produced by the minimal techno duo Triple Parked, Keith’s Salon’s musical backbone is light on its feet, lying somewhere between tranquility and menace. There’s an aqueous quality to the bubbly synths of “Clams” and “Wiggle” that provides an airy simplicity, complimenting Kool Keith’s masterful flow. The production of the last few tracks reverts to more familiar territory. However, the first two-thirds of the album features some hugely engrossing work.
Keith’s Salon isn’t exactly a leap forward for its creator (he passed the point of having to prove himself a long time ago), but it’s easily one of his most compelling works. His usual preoccupations are pointed towards a worthy target and are backed by some distinct and captivating production. It’s as weird and confrontational as ever, but also uncharacteristically elegant and whisper it – occasionally even tasteful.