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Sensory Descent (Ill Kinetics)

Wednesday, Sep 25 2002
A standard dilemma for underground rap acts has always been how to deftly bring their more complex, studio-crafted rhymes and beats to life onstage. For Bay Area scene stalwarts Psychokinetics, however, the question was whether MCs Spidey and Celsius 7 and DJs Ill Media and Denizen would ever translate the high-octane energy of their live shows to a full-length album. The crew's earlier output -- dating to 1997 -- revealed promising mike and production skills, but it wasn't until last year's Let It Off EP that the group's sound quality rose to the level of its material.

Eschewing the usual funk and soul samples so common to underground releases, Psychokinetics give Sensory Descent a futurist spin by bringing elements of electronica into the mix. That's not to say the album isn't firmly rooted in hip hop: "Sexy Dress" features a loping, piano-driven groove underneath "party-and-bullshit" storytelling rhymes, while "Easy as It Looks?" addresses the time-honored subject of how difficult it is to stay true to yourself in the rap game. In the end, however, it's the songs that take a broader sonic approach -- such as "Eye Contact," which frames the MCs' dueling rhymes with a hectic, scratch-heavy beat similar to a techno remix -- that make the collection a varied and enjoyable listen. Sharing production duties with Champagne Fadey (Vérité and Living Legends beat maestro Slurface Tone also helm individual songs), Ill Media moves comfortably from straight-ahead hip hop thump to dense, hypersyncopated jungle flavor, sometimes within the space of the same song.

Over the course of the record Spidey and Celsius 7 show off a versatility that matches their producers. Both rappers nod to the melodic, sometimes tongue-twisting delivery of cerebral forebears Freestyle Fellowship and Organized Konfusion, but the duo avoids the overflowing syllable-gymnastics that often plague the backpacker set by studiously staying on beat. Spiritual concerns, artistic and personal self-doubts, and the idea of hip hop as a positive sustaining force take center stage with "Justalittlebit" and "Grey." The latter features soulful vocals courtesy of Celsius 7's sister, Kristin Battersby, and a chorus that betrays a vulnerability rarely heard from MCs: "I done lost my friends, lost my girl/ Lost my mind, but then I found this world." Sensory Descent balances roughneck mike-rocking with chill-out grooves and earnest sensitivity, as Psychokinetics push the boundaries of what one expects from underground hip hop.

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Dave Pehling


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