Like Bruce Banner and Clark Kent, Dudley Perkins is more than he claims to be. Though he here operates under his birth name, he's probably better known as Declaime, the mad space-mystic rapper whose smoked-out, semi-sung drawl helped make 2001's Andsoitisaid a minor West Coast classic. The other half of that album's equation was Madlib, on whom the label "genius" was first slapped following 2000's Quasimoto album, The Unseen. The two albums' basis in quirky, melodic jazz-funk made them interesting at a time when the underground was fairly flooded with stripped-down, break-based records (as it continues to be today), and the combination of that sound with Declaime's own buzzing, laconic delivery could not have been more perfect.
It was around the time of the Quasimoto sessions that Madlib and Dudley/Declaime first stumbled across what would become the indisputably unique R&B sound of A Lil' Light. "Flowers" was, at first, little more than an experiment, its lilting four-chord piano progression and chill boom-bap a chance for Declaime to stretch out the singing chops that his melodic flow implied. But the finished song, with its stream-of-consciousness lyrics and a vocal veering from utterly heartfelt to self-effacingly off-key, ultimately revealed much more than a rapper trying to sing -- it revealed an entirely new personality buried under Declaime's West Coast rap steez. The track caught the attention of a few people, got released as a 7" single, and now, three years later, we get a whole album of tracks that are nearly its equal in their simple, off-the-cuff brilliance.
The album doesn't fall comfortably into any current stream of R&B creativity. In contrast to most commercial crooners, Perkins's range is sharply limited: his falsetto is shaky, he croaks on the bass end, and he'd be the first to tell you that he smokes too much to hold any note from more than a moment. The tracks are similarly rough-edged, almost all stripped-down to a simple loop, and plenty dusty. Unlike almost all current R&B, including supposedly "underground" singers like Vinia Mojica, A Lil' Light lacks Faberge shine and elegance. Instead of the detachment born of a peacock-like display of pure ability, here we get the sometimes disorienting full assault of the duo's whims, imperfections, and passions, all sounding like they were committed to tape with little planning or plotting. We get unapologetic bits of sentiment like "Lil' Black Boy" and "Momma", whose lines ("You give me joy, little black boy", and "It was you who gave me life, momma") might have turned to pure saccharine if a more technical singer had chosen to lay on the tremolo. In Perkins's unaffected, decidedly human hands, though, in a slightly-silly voice whose like we can imagine ourselves mustering with a few months' practice, the sentimentality falls away and what's left feels fun and sincere at the same time.
Perkins's mastery of the cliché is similar in its unexpected depth. You won't find him ranging into new thematic territory, "Ms. Jackson"-style, and he wasn't offering up particularly inspired wordplay even when, rapping as Declaime, he had a little more flexibility on that front. He approaches a fairly standard range of hip-hop/R&B subjects from a well-established underground perspective, decrying the evils of money ("Money"), lamenting the world's "lack of knowledge" ("Falling"), and regretting how much trouble women have gotten him into ("Washedbrainsyndrome"). His lyrics are often little more than a simple, two-line chorus sandwiching improvised-feeling verses. But as any fan of ODB can tell you, the simplest cliché becomes a whole new beast when it's really just a launching pad for a distinctive voice -- and Dudley Perkins certainly is that. His particular trip plays itself to the most extreme on skits and interludes such as the Sun-Ra-inspired diatribe of "Gotta Go", and on the album's weirdest track, "Muzak", where an intentionally grating filter turns Perkins into an apocalyptic, raving Roger Troutman. But, for the most part, the effect is muted, and between Perkins's humanizing vocal imperfections and occasional traipses into absurdist territory, he ends up as something akin to a sad clown. While feigning an occasional grab for laughs, he's really aiming for pathos, and he hits this target more squarely than many whose methods are more direct.
Of course, none of this would work nearly so well if it weren't for the production by Madlib, who has managed in the last few years to live up to the worship heaped on The Unseen. Here the sound is considerably more composed, the goofiness that powered The Unseen and even Andsoitisaid kept to a minimum. There are still occasional delirious glissandos, wild sound effects, and wabbit-hunting violin stabs ("Washedbrainsyndrome"), but the record's biggest moments all come when Madlib is playing it straight. On "Falling", a complex interweaving of weeping strings, haunting harpsichord, and pulsing bass lends prophetic heft to Perkins's frantic cosmic testimonial: "Don't you want to go to the moon also? . . . Don't you want to see with your own two eyes? I shall tumble into deep space . . . I shall spiral through the black hole". The understated, droopy-lidded groove of "Flowers" itself manages to help elevate its oblique weed paean to more esoteric territory. When Dudley sings "Who says we've got plenty of time to kick it? / I kick it too / He kicks it too / We all kick it too / Why do we kick it?", it's at once a celebration of life and a lament for its inevitable passing.
A Lil' Light is a substantial improvement over Andsoitisaid, and would seem to suggest that Declaime may need to step down in favor of his considerably more daring and powerful secret identity. Aside from how enjoyable it is in and of itself, A Lil' Light also opens up new possibilities for R&B, brushing off both the pure gloss of the mainstream and the predictable over-emoting of neo-soul in favor of something more bracingly real. It's unapologetically raw and more than a little bit retrograde, evoking an age when everything was recorded in one take, on one mic, rather than being run twice through a buffer before getting released. Along with the fun, heavy crooning of Mike Ladd's recent Majesticons album, it suggests that a little soul need not always and forever be the enemy of "serious" hip-hop fans.