Photo: Jasmine Van Buytene via Shorefire

Oddisee’s Odyssey Is Odd on ‘To What End’

The beauty of To What End is that it sits at the summit of Oddisee’s output, a rapper and producer at the height of his powers.

To What End
Outer Note Label
20 January 2023

It’s not that Oddisee‘s 2023 album To What End tackles new sounds and subjects compared to his previous work. That’s not the case at all. To What End finds the Washington, DC, native rapper and producer serving a familiar selection of major and minor chords, immersing his work with soulful background vocals and espousing a steadfast and levelheaded everyman ethos. No doubt, longtime hip-hop fans have heard it all before, whether from Oddisee or others. The difference is that Oddisee’s final product has rarely been heard at a higher level, not even by Oddisee himself.

To What End, in title and substance, simultaneously asks a question and makes a statement. Its title is similar to the response of a Jeopardy contestant answering a trivia item in the form of a question, at once inquiring into the game show’s clue while also declaring, “I know it” — or, at least, “I think I know it.” Through its 16 tracks, To What End poses the question of why we — you, me, humans, musicians, any of us — do what we do, and for what purpose? It also provides the answer. 

It’s about making choices, whether to bridge a gap via communication, reach goals, or mend differences. There’s power in making choices, and the attentive listener will hear it in Oddisee’s approach to this release. Oddisee advances his philosophy by merging time (represented by music) with distance (approximated and hopefully bridged by wordplay and lyrics). That convergence, that melting pot, embodies a series of artistic choices. Like the title of Oddisee’s 2013 release, The Beauty in All, the maestro’s musical and lyrical concoction results in a compellingly vibrant aesthetic.

Here, the music spans musical styles. There’s a running through-line of scene-stealing synths and frenetic piano, often twinkling but occasionally discordant, backed by sustained vocal sighs and coos. There are the doo-wop harmonies amid crackling vinyl in “The Start of Something”, which, until it runs two-thirds of its runtime, is an atmospheric introduction like “Queens Get the Money” on NasUntitled.

There’s the sensual 1970s mystique that would make Barry White proud on “Many Hats”, similar to how the hook for “All I Need” recalls Earth, Wind & Fire. Now Earth, Wind, & Fire are certainly a one-of-a-kind and once-in-a-lifetime sensation, but Oddisee’s work here sits comfortably next to the legendary band’s spirit rather than attempting to imitate it.

Likewise, “Work to Do” shares a vibe in common with the Isley Brothers’ classic of the same name. It’s embellished by Bilal‘s vocal stylings that are completely on target. If I could make one suggestion (for any artist, really), it would be for tracks like this to approach the working motif from a different angle. That is, instead of justifying the relationship tensions created, or exacerbated, by a career-oriented mindset, I’d love to see a tune respond to the self-assured Vanessa Williams version of the song from the 1990s. The Oddisee-Bilal pairing is still quite good.

Equally impressive are the 1980s-tinged R&B and funk numbers. “The Way” infuses an intense and deliberate rhythm with an interpolation from DeBarge’s “I Like It”. Despite the number and variety of songs either sampling or covering DeBarge’s track, Oddisee gives it a fresh revisit. As another example, “Already Knew” could have been a long-lost collaboration with Midnight Star, and the tempo changes mirror Tupac Shakur’s treatment of The Time’s “777-9311” in his “What’z Ya Phone #.” The track also showcases a whopper of an orchestral coda.

The core of the album, and what grounds it in form and function, is Oddisee’s methods for influencing the listener’s perception of time. Sometimes he uses his keyboard sounds for percussive effect, only to switch them out for traditional drumbeats. At other times, his faster one-and-a-half speed flow provides the illusion of a rapid pace, as if the track has accelerated. As a side note, many of hip-hop’s underrated emcees are experts at pacing, syntax, and delivery, reframing beats through vocal delivery and lyrical technique. Elsewhere, Oddisee employs elongated strings to slow down the pace. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sound of the guitar solo that ends the album (“Race”) — it feels like years of perfection that could only be topped by lasting longer.

Take note of the guest features: C.S. Armstrong, BeMyFiasco, Bilal, Freeway, Phonte, Toine Jameson, Noochie, Olivier St. Louis, Saint Ezekiel, Haile Supreme, and Kay Young. Given this roster, we’d be forgiven if we worried that Oddisee, or any artist, for that matter, would get overshadowed. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Oddisee more than holds his own while weaving his nimble lyricism across his diverse soundscape. 

Lyrically, Oddisee’s message is consistently delivered. He’s humble, as he says, “It took time to accept that I’m worthy of admiration,” in “Start of Something”. In “Many Hats”, he’s resilient: “Owe my career to turning hurt into ideas.” As you might expect, he’s also introspective, as he says in “More to Go”, “Looked inside my fridge and me, and ain’t seen nothing sweet.” In addition to the lyrics, it’s his flow that’s impressive, whether he’s emoting through a rigid, staccato delivery or trading verses with Toine Jameson in “Bartenders”. The latter track specifically highlights Oddisee’s wordplay since the MCs trade “bars” while passing, or “tendering”, the baton with seamless dexterity.

We always knew Oddisee was clever. His rap moniker alone tells us he is a crafty wordsmith, as the name denotes an “odyssey”, as in a journey. At the same time, it announces his unique perspective, as in “Odd I See”. We hear him lean into this on “Start of Something”, where he remarks, “You might not beat the odds, but you got to meet the Odd.” We shouldn’t be surprised at his use of language, considering his previous album titles that display a penchant for synesthesia (2012’s People Hear What They See), attention to irony and contrast (2013’s Tangible Dream and 2015’s The Good Fight), and use of metaphor (2017’s Iceberg). The beauty of this release is that it sits at the summit of Oddisee’s output, a rapper and producer at the height of his powers. Now’s the time to enjoy everything Oddisee is bringing to the table.

RATING 7 / 10