Indie hip-hop doesn’t get the kind of fighting chance that indie rock is provided. While you may hear the Arcade Fire played on mainstream rock radio, you’ll never catch an MF Doom track spun on corporate urban stations. It’s not an unexpected show of preferential treatment — the tasteless landscape of corporate radio will sacrifice anything to the ephemeral want of the Trend — but it nevertheless contributes to an inaccurate picture of a genre at large. This biased representation bleeds over into the consciousness of cultural critics, who spend more time espousing the current endeavors of Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Ghostface Killah than seeking out music to challenge the glut of commerce-sponsored groupthink.
And so it goes that an artist like Ohmega Watts, who released one of this year’s stronger hip-hop records, is completely ignored by all those preoccupied with big-league hype. Watts’s second album in as many years, Watts Happening isn’t about to rewrite any rules, but it is a very confident piece of hip-hop form and function. Watts’s self-constructed beats are big slabs of funk, jazz, and soul, his lyrics make old-school boasts and socially conscious stands, and his sophomore record takes frequent excursions outside of the hip-hop crux. Watts Happening is a record that revels in the progressive lilt of infectious hip-hop and regularly concedes its jurisdiction to powers of influence greater than itself.
On the Brazilian-flavored jam “Adaptacao”, for instance, Watts completely removes himself from the spotlight to make way for the São Paulo singer Tita Lima. Even after the song finishes, it takes one more track (“Saywhayusay”) for the album to completely shake the Brazilian influence and dive back into hip-hop proper. Similarly, Watts steps aside to grant Sugar Pie Desanto command of “Are You Satisfied”. For his part, Watts concocts the jazz/funk hybrid groove; it doesn’t matter how “hip-hop” the track is, as long as it works. Later, on “The Platypus Strut”, Watts leads a live band, complete with horns and flute, through a funk workout that touches on fusion and Afrobeat, and then follows it up with “Freak Out”, a one-man instrumental jam. Through the entirety of Watts Happening, Watts proves that he’ll fearlessly follow his muse, even if it means leaving a conservative definition of genre in the dust. (This doesn’t mean that Watts is entirely immune from self-indulgence: the brief track “Shorty Shouts” is little more than a string of family and friends sounding off on what makes Watts great.)
Watts’s production style — heavy on warm Rhodes tones that resonate and dissolve in the mix, melodic blends of homegrown synths and horns — is such an integral part of his sound that Watts Happening comes with a bonus disc containing an instrumental version of the entire album. It’s a fascinating way to re-examine Watts’s sonic frontier, and not a surprising move on Ubiquity’s part, given the notoriety of the producer in recent years. More organic than Madlib and less cartoonish than DJ Danger Mouse, Watts is nevertheless a contemporary of the two, fashioning his propulsive, festive voice from the byproducts of a jazz- and R&B-flecked background.
But lest you get the wrong impression about this record: Watts Happening is hip-hop through and through, from the fat-bottomed shout-out hook in “What’s It Worth” and static-dagger DJ scratches in “Triple Douple” to the LL Cool J allusion of “Roc the Bells”, but it’s hip-hop that’s not afraid to plumb the depths of its own existence, to completely morph into its own influences instead of merely citing them. “I ignite change with the strike of a pen”, Watts insists in “No Delay”, and that’s not empty boasting: Watts Happening is defined by the ever-changing pieces of its creative makeup, a thing that keeps on moving regardless of who happens to be watching.