Rjd2’s 2002 album Deadringer was a focused, powerful debut that immediately had hip-hop fans proclaiming him as one of the hottest producers around. The album had an immediacy derived from unleashed, funky-as-all-get-out beats, a sweetness within the old-school soul samples, and a futuristic vibe lurking around the synthesizer lines and layers of atmosphere. Deadringer, its sibling The Horror EP, and RJ’s production work with hip-hop cult heroes like Diverse and Aceyalone all helped form the sense that there was an “Rjd2 sound”, that this mix of classic soul and hip-hop sounds with a forward-looking style was what he was all about. At the same time, RJ’s work as half of the duo Soul Position took their debut album 8 Million Stories in some slightly different directions, with a rock and roll edge in places and a nod or two towards melancholy pop. RJ also continually told interviewers that he had more tricks up his sleeve than anyone could know, with hints appearing that his second album would be his “rock” album.
Rjd2’s second album Since We Last Spoke opens with a track that has a loud, tough rock edge to it, giving credence to the rumors… for the first few moments anyway. The track (the title song) has an energy and style that at first resembles a more rocked-up version of Deadringer. But then wistful backing vocals float in and out, and the music continually grows calm and then fades away, only to come back louder and stronger than before. “Since We Last Spoke” is followed by “Exotic Talk”, which begins with brash electric guitar but then segues into spooky trip-hop (emphasis on the hop, not the trippiness) before seguing back again. The track balances crunch with an eerie mellowness, and has a funky R&B stroll as a base, holding everything together. Then the album’s third track, “1976”, comes in and the rock attack is gone completely, replaced by a Latin disco bounce and a hook that sounds like the longlost theme to a cheesy ’70s cop show.
This is when you realize that “the Rjd2 sound” is more inclusive than you could imagine, but also that by diversifying his sound RJ has actually strengthened his music. Since We Last Spoke continually subverts expectations of what an Rjd2 album is about, yet the songs all stick together in a cohesive way, and the album still somehow bears the distinct personality stamp of the RJ we already knew, even as some of it diverges wildly from the path he’s been on so far.
A hip-hop DJ shouldn’t sing, you would think, but on several tracks here RJ does sing, sounding sometimes like an indie-pop frontman singing sad sweet nothings, sometimes like a wanna-be soul crooner who has heart if not professional chops. The vocals blend into the album’s atmosphere well, which is another sign that the album is less “hip-hop” than you’d expect. Besides the rock energy, which kicks off the album with a spark and then comes to a head with “Through the Walls”, a melodic prog-rock tune that has the barest traces of hip-hop (it’s in the drums and the attitude, perhaps), there’s also a serious strain of late-night, romantic soul music a la Donny Hathaway or Curtis Mayfield here. And then there’s a song like the dynamite “Iced Lightning”, which evades classification by layering aggressive but lovely waves of synth over a funky strut.
Thinking of Since We Last Spoke as a hip-hop DJ’s trip into diverse musical worlds is a bit off-track, however, as calling RJ a DJ isn’t even close to the truth on this album. It’s difficult to tell how much of Since We Last Spoke does derive from samples of records, but it’s clear that most of it doesn’t. RJD2 isn’t just a DJ or producer, he’s a composer/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist. He plays who-knows-what-all instruments here. Yet his mix-and-match approach to music - taking all sorts of sounds, genres, styles, instruments, and moods and combining them into something fresh and exciting - is still very much in the tradition of hip-hop. He is a DJ still, but one who isn’t about to limit the tools he uses. That freedom from limitations and boundaries is what makes Since We Last Spoke so spellbinding in general. He’s working with whatever he feels like working with, and making it all sound hot. If you think of hip-hop as a musically conservative genre (as it’s often called) or if you consider most instrumental hip-hop to be predictable or even dull, chances are good that Since We Last Spoke will do more than just surprise you, it’ll blow your world apart.