Since 2002’s Deadringer, RJD2 has excelled at a particular form of hip-hip bricolage that scavenges various genre tropes and sutures them together into a single elemental dynamism. While he pulls liberally from a wide range of sonic templates, from ’90s rap to to indie pop to brass-heavy Philadelphia soul, there is an ongoing commitment to “beat” — the vital impulse concentrating noise and sound into a linearized emotional unfurling — that rises above the genre-splicing and formal experimentation integral to his approach. Indeed, RJD2 is a beat-maker in the strictest sense of the term. Which is to say, he crafts impulses that seem to supersede the compositions that carry them — beat-impulses, all forward momentum, tight, luminous, full of textural chromatics and percussive ricochets and bouncing electrons that rush off in different directions yet all seem to cohere into a unified combinatorial movement.
These impulses are perceptible regardless of the genre RJD2 is employing or deconstructing, and they energize his music with the fizzy effervescence now closely associated with his aesthetic. Take “Ghostwriter”, one of Deadringer‘s standout tracks: a chimera of acoustic indie pop, horn-laden Stax R&B, and buoyant G-funk, the song exceeds for no other reason than because it moves and moves well, onward, upward, onward some more, losing itself to the beat that subtly yet irrefutably governs it. But what exactly is this form of movement and when does it transmute from mere instrumentation and tempo to a beat? Can it be isolated within a song structure? What’s the difference between a good beat and a bad one? The answers to these questions are frustratingly elusive, for beat isn’t a phenomenon that can be diagnosed or schematized in any rational way. Rather, it is a matter of feeling and feeling alone — a feeling of instincts rallied, a feeling of blood circulating to a new cadence, a feeling of feeling your own feeling as a violence beneath the skin. To hear a beat is to come the closest you can to knowing it. Any attempt at true explication fails.
Listen to Kanye West’s “Feedback” from The Life of Pablo, though, and you can hear a beat attempt to explicate itself. The track begins with a twisted metallic siren-tone, but, for all you know, this isn’t the beginning of a track at all. It’s just a noise, nails scraping along the edge of the production, a retching electro-alarm that could continue ad infinitum — a feedback loop, as it were, content with the infected system it has built for itself. But then Kanye enters, yanking you away from this misperception: “Ayy, you heard about the good news? Y’all sleeping on me, huh? Had a good snooze?” he asks, and behind him the siren-tone begins to morph, to move, to breathe, becoming a pseudo-sentient sonic organism urging him onward into the next lyric and the next lyric after that, as if its survival — and, symbiotically, Kanye’s — depended on the sequence of words and rhyme patterns it roused into being. Indeed, once Kanye is introduced, the beat makes itself unequivocally known. Yet, upon the second and third and fourth replay of “Feedback”, you realize that the strange grating noise that inaugurates the track is this exact same beat, just in a prior evolutionary stage. This points to what, in essence, makes a beat a beat: an irresistible rhythmic velocity that may assume various forms and take on additional layers, but that persists in its fundamental nature to compel new sounds out of hiding. Beneath the first words of “Feedback”, you can hear this compulsion take place in high-fidelity realtime.
In Dame Fortune, RJD2 engineers a set of compulsions that similarly evolve before you, and while no boundary is pushed here, his acute sense of sonic craftsmanship shows no sign of depreciating. “The Roaming Hoard”, in another producer’s hands, would seem cluttered and overindulgent, but here RJD2 manages to let the track’s electro-funk freneticism run amok without compromising the beat’s focus. “We Come Alive”, another album highpoint, spotlights a breathy nu-soul vocal from Son Little and contains one of the LP’s most resplendent melodies: “Diamonds flashing all in my eyes / Diamonds flashing all in my eyes,” Little repeats, a tinkling piano and so-close-it-must-be-real drum beat lofting him along, and it seems that Rihanna’s quixotic heroine from “Diamonds” – “We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky” – is staring him down from across the room. Meanwhile, “A New Theory” blasts from start to finish like a junkyard rocket wheezing its way through the stratosphere.
But RJD2’s unique beat-making prowess comes out most audibly in two tracks from the album’s first act, namely “The Sheboygan Left” and “Peace of What”. In the former, just like Kanye’s “Feedback”, a prevailing beat-impulse rides through seemingly dissimilar compositional sections. The track begins with a stuttering, organ-drum exchange that feels like a preamble to something bigger, something grand and explosive, but it’s unclear what that something is. Then, the chorus hits and this something manifests all at once: a roof-lifting eruption of brass, choral flourishes, and furious snare crashes that seems to institute a new volume threshold for the LP as a whole. While this preamble and chorus seem to be sonically mismatched, RJD2 ties them together with a common instrumental foundation that gives the track a subtle unity.
“Peace of What”, on the other hand, lifts its beat from history. The track’s orchestral bombast and sonic ambition recall Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 classic “Move On Up”, a nine minute soul masterwork that closes with nearly six minutes of instrumental freestyling. These final six minutes are saturated with various funk solos and percussive skirmishes, but it’s the insistent beat that pushes the track past the standard three-minute mark, that almost refuses to let it come to an end. This beat seems to plead out loud: keep me going, urge me onward, don’t let me rest for I have much more to say. With “Touch the Sky”, Kanye answered this plea literally, sampling “Move on Up” and turning it into a paean for artistic ambition. With “Peace of What”, RJD2 answers it figuratively, crafting a contemporary echo of the song that uses impassioned soul vocals and punchy orchestration to tell a story of racial unrest. The beat of “Move on Up” is present in both of these songs — manifest in one and latent in the other. It’s a beat that lives on, like all beats, constant and eager to take new shapes.