March 31, 2011

Hip-Hop’s Avant Garde

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CunninLynguists keep hip-hop alive underground.

Every art movement has its manifesto. The CunninLynguists, made up of rappers Deacon the Villain and Natti, alongside producer DJ Kno, have been shaking up the hip-hop scene since their debut in 2001 with Will Rap For Food. They’re signed with underground label QN5, whose website reads: “This is the new hip-hop. Devoid of boundaries, gimmicks, or rigid genres, with no apologies given.” How, then, does their latest release, Oneirology, measure up to this bold claim?

As the title indicates, this album revolves around the study of dreams. This is nothing new in hip-hop, where fantasies of escaping the hood or of material objects are commonplace. But from the first track, “Predormitum,” the CunninLynguists weave an aural, astral web around the listener, bringing them right into the dreamy substance of the album. The old school is right at heart here, with vinyl scratches preceding an instantly recognizable sample of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” Yet the first lines of the album, from Natti, can only be classified as avant-garde: “I am floating, happy not knowing nautical course / tie a wristwatch in slipknots and dock at my porch.” This type of abstract, introspective storytelling sets the tone for the rest of the album.

“Darkness (Dream On)” is another solid introductory track, with Deacon and Natti wallowing in sorrow over a smooth bass-and-snare Kno beat. The track defines the principal topic of the album: achieving one’s personal aspirations while struggling with problems like drug addiction and depression. In this first, darker half of the album, dreams are a terrifying outlet for feelings and desires repressed during the waking hours. Clearly, the CunninLynguists have studied Freud.

The CunninLynguists still manage to keep it real, though. “Hard As They Come (Act I)” is a track true to its name, with Deacon, Freddie Gibbs and Kno laying down verses that personify hard alcohol, crack cocaine and H.I.V., respectively. “Murder (Act II)” is a smooth play on political power, with a solid guest appearance by Big K.R.I.T. “My Habit” brings an impressive collection of double-entendres from Natti, describing his love for rapping like a drug addiction.

Perhaps the most powerful track on the album is “Get Ignorant,” an all-out polemic against racism and apathy. Simply put, this track goes to 11 on the bass and drum loops. Deacon is in rare form, dropping one verse too lurid for printing in the Sun, followed by a well-reasoned critique of T.V.-prescribed vanity. For the CunninLynguists, the connection between darkness and ignorance is important; they make it clear that consciousness is the key to overcoming the terrors of both the dream world and the real world.

By design, “Stars Shine Brightest (In The Darkest Night)” is placed in the middle, and brings a burst of motivational energy that carries the listener through the rest of the album. At about the three minute mark, the beat drastically shifts, breaking down to big drum kicks, while Natti kills yet another verse to round out the song.

Anyone who’s ever had a crazy girlfriend can relate to “Enemies With Benefits.” Paired with it is “Looking Back,” a laid back tune about love. It’s tough to fault the CunninLynguists, but including the acoustic version of the song (viewable on YouTube) would have taken the laid back vibe to a whole new level.

“Dreams” teeters on the edge of being too poppy, but along with “Embers,” provides a nice conclusion to a great album overall. Oneirology highlights DJ Kno’s growing capabilities as both producer and rapper. Before Dr. Dre sold overpriced headphones and Dr. Pepper, he played a similar role his classic albums: 2001 and The Chronic. Fresh off his 2010 solo album Death is Silent, DJ Kno shows much more on the mic than he did on past CunninLynguists albums. It’s this willingness to take risks that makes every release from this trio worth looking forward to.

Don’t sleep on Oneirology. It is simply not possible to comprehend this album in one play-through. And that’s a good thing in an age of plebeian lyrics lazily applied to mass-marketed beats. Although it’s not for everyone, underground hip-hop fans will welcome the addition of a new classic to their collections.

Is hip-hop dead? No, it just went underground to survive.

Original Author: Patrick Cambre