When a musician brings other genres into hip-hop, how many can he add before the music is no longer hip-hop?
When does expanding the boundaries of hip-hop lead to abandoning it altogether? When a musician brings other genres into hip-hop, how far can he go before the music is no longer hip-hop at all? That's the line Rjd2 is walking with his third album The Third Hand, which also signifies a genre-appropriate move from NYC hip-hop label Definitive Jux to XL Recordings, home to Ratatat, Basement Jaxx and others working with electronic music and hip-hop in a pop context. RJ Krohn's music as Rjd2 has always been inclusive, starting even with his pre-album mix Your Face of Your Kneecaps, which incorporated classic soul and funk, but also many stripes of pop, into hip-hop. Much of his first album Deadringer resembled an especially funky film score, "The Horror"'s creepshow vibe most obviously. His second LP Since We Last Spoke looked toward prog-rock for its epic scope and thick guitars. That album also blurred the line between what Krohn was creating with his sampler and what he was playing on other instruments. He also sang on a few tracks, albeit in a tentative way.
The Third Hand is an outgrowth from those baby steps. It's impossible to tell what instruments were recorded live and which were sampled, and he's singing all over the album, with lead vocals on 11 of the 15 tracks. On most of those tracks the vocals take center stage -- the production/composition style of previous albums is there, but it's backgrounded, constrained within a more typically pop/rock verse-chorus-verse song structure. The first half of the album is especially in this vein. The first proper instrumental comes nearly halfway in, as if he's trying to tell fans they need to get on board with what he's doing now if they want to experience the pleasures they found in his previous albums. That's a sign that he knows this is a love/hate project. And he should -- not just because he's singing more than usual, or playing instruments more than usual, but because the structure of his songs has changed so much. His production style is still evolving, but for most of The Third Hand it's been straitjacketed to a singer/songwriter pop format. As the album proceeds, there's tracks where the interesting musical ideas lurking throughout the album are allowed to move forward, and thrive. But for much of the album they're stifled by shifting priorities, Rjd2's desire to add "singer" and "songwriter" to the descriptors in front of his name.
Rjd2 is known for constructing and arranging intricate, (dramatic) hip-hop soundscapes, not for writing lyrics and singing them. In that way The Third Hand evokes the actor declaring "what I really want to do is direct." Or perhaps the other way around: the director whose face isn't used to the camera. He sings like he's just recently started doing it, or more specifically like a DIY, home-taping amateur musician who fancies himself a soul crooner, a Stevie Wonder or at least a Cody Chesnutt. The melodies are simple enough to seem like beginner's work as well, a surprise considering how melodic his instrumental constructions often are. And he writes lyrics like he just started writing them, like a high school poet.
The Third Hand's lyrical approach is to dramatize everyday life, whether it's a public transit strike ("Have Mercy") or a complaint about a neighbor who just sits around watching TV all day ("Laws of the Gods"). Most often, the topic is love, including childbirth ("Just When"), sharing in a relationship ("You Never Had It"), illicit love ("Sweet Piece") or a straight-out declaration of a love ("Someday"). But so often the lyrics themselves are either clichés, nonsense or, at best, run-of-the-mill. There's a few moments where the awkwardness of the lyrics and singing coalesce in such a heightened way that it would come off as parody if he wasn't taking it so seriously. "Laws of the Gods" sounds like an unfunny Saturday Night Live skit, with its admonition to a TV watcher, "whoa lazy man / you broke the laws of the gods," sung with a mythological level of importance. On "The Evening Gospel", he throws a faux-English, or maybe faux-gothic tone of voice onto the first few lines ("thunder and lightning / in a big black box"). It seems meant to evoke some sort of Genesis/Jethro Tull type of art-rock, but it sounds ridiculous.
The worst single lyric on the album is "cold winds will leave you windy." But that's on "Beyond the Beyond", which also has the best hook on the album. It's the best because the music is rich and complex, like the best of his past work, and the sung melody seems to organically blend in with the music. As the main rhythm stops and starts, a chorus of harmonies fills the space. The track best captures the light pop atmosphere of the album and Rjd2's genius for composition, for putting sounds together in a new context. It's the true realization of the promise of an Rjd2 track that still leans towards hip-hop while incorporating his own style of homemade pop.
"Beyond the Beyond" is the album's highlight, even with its ridiculous lyrics. And there's the rub: The Third Hand is such a battlefield of conflicting forces that as a listener I'm always working to hear one element over another. I'll find my attention drawn to a weak hook or an embarrassing lyric and get angry about where the album is taking me; so then I'll push that away and listen to the drums, listen to the layers of instruments, imagine how glorious an instrumental version of The Third Hand would sound. There's the key: an instrumental Third Hand would sound brilliant, even with the more narrow construction of over half the songs. The lack of the subpar lyrics and vocals would open up the listening experience, leaving room for interpretation, and draw attention to the work Krohn clearly put into this album. The music is more labored-over, in that way more exploratory, than any previous Rjd2 release. Even the most straightforward song has layers.
Even the dullest tracks reveal secrets if you listen closely enough. "You Never Had It So Good" might have a sub-Ben Folds tune on top, but underneath there's so much more: the insistent, low-end guitar on one side and the acoustic that appears on the other; the hidden percussion; ominous twinkles on a piano. "Reality" is psychobabble with awkward vocal phrasing, but listen to how well the topsy-turvy sense of shifting balances out and moves forward. Listen to the gorgeous bridge: one-part salsa, one-part Super Mario Brothers. "Laws of the Gods" is nearly unbearable as a song, but listen to how those drums kick. "Someday" is one of the most listless love ballads I've heard, but the into with the "hmm…" harmonies and "Julia"-esque guitar is sweet. "Just When" tries unconvincingly to be both sexy and sensitive with its plea for baby-making, but the rhythmic push of the chorus makes the track powerful. "Rules for Normal Living"'s idea of an insightful notion is "don't forget to tell your woman she's your favorite", but the dense, changing mood -- somehow both Egyptian and '80s hip-hop in theme -- is exciting.
With The Third Hand you have to take each thrill and each embarassment side by side, that's how it goes. It's more work to listen to than any previous Rjd2 album; listening is a constant quest for the remarkable within the unremarkable. But it's there. You may have to listen past a few layers to be satisfied, but there is a level of satisfaction to be found.