The writing's on the already-tagged-over wall: We're awash in middling hip hop talents. In the 30-plus years of the music, there have been only a dozen or so really worthwhile scripts, and yet thousands of directors are busy reshooting the same ideas over and over.
So it's a wonder why the neighboring county of instrumental hip hop, with its acres of open space and ample opportunities for upstart beat-makers, hasn't seen a massive influx of new immigrants. Its allotted quota of 15 stars isn't even a third full yet -- Coldcut, DJ Shadow, Prefuse 73, and RJD2 are about it. Each was heralded as a Moses who would lead an exodus of DJ-cum-producers, unencumbered by MCs, to the promised land of absolute beat-making liberation. El-P, figurehead of the forever-jocked Definitive Jux stable of artists, announced that the release of RJD2's solo debut, Dead Ringer, in 2002 would "change the motherfuckin' world." It didn't. Though RJ was buried under accolades (Spin picked the album as the 31st best of the year; the Strokes gave him a shout-out), and he'd managed to move, at last count, 87,000 copies of Dead Ringer, the predicted flood of moody, sample-layered instrumental hip hop never arrived.
"I don't hear a lot of it period," RJ observes from his home in Philadelphia (he moved there from Columbus, Ohio, after Dead Ringer's release). "I think there's not a lot of people who have the ethic or approach of rap music and can bring that to an instrumental record." Will Since We Last Spoke, RJ's just-released sophomore album, change all that? Unlikely. Not because the record sucks, but because, like its predecessor, it sets the bar too damn high.
For RJD2, upholding the ethic of rap music without the rapper requires maintaining a strict collagist aesthetic -- everything that isn't sampled from vinyl, such as guest vocals or his own guitar playing, is made to sound like it was. In this regard, RJ is something of a sound-quality conservative, insisting that every source crackle with dust and feel circuitry-modulated, the way his inspiration Marley Marl's did. "If anything on the record sounds live," he says, "it's a mistake."
Despite his taste for vintage sounds, though, RJ isn't a member of that circle of reactionary underground hip-hoppers who claim that nothing authentic has been made since 1993. He gets excited by Ludacris and the Roc-A-Fella clique, and although he often expresses frustration with the underground hip hop status quo, he also says he's tired of "everyone always shitting on hip hop." And yet, Since We Last Spoke sees him wandering further astray from the traditions of the medium in which he began (his first work was as a producer in the Columbus indie rap group MHz). This time, he doesn't feature a single rapper (Dead Ringer had three tracks with MCs) and he throws in a few curveballs that can only be said to have come out of white-bread culture. "Through the Walls," an endearingly corny ode to the Cars that he constructed out of "poppy, rocky records between '80 and '83," and "Making Days Longer," on which RJ awkwardly sings a loungy Nick Drake imitation, are decidedly b-boy unfriendly.
RJ says he was afraid of offending certain hip hop sensibilities on his debut, a fear he cured with immersion therapy via Since We Last Spoke. "In hindsight, my complaint with Dead Ringer is that I played it safe. There are a couple instrumental songs, a song with a vocal sample, then there's a rap song, so at any point if you don't like something, you might like something else soon. This record is more of a thing where you might not like something, and I'm not going to be forgiving about it."
For the most part, RJ's newfound prickliness pays off. The MCs he hosted on Dead Ringer, while capable, were definitely not of the 15 who deserve to be listened to repeatedly. And with Spoke he improves upon his greatest skill, the one that distinguishes him from Shadow, with whom he's incessantly compared: his ability to find and recontextualize stunningly soulful vocal samples. Since his first album, his arranging touch has lightened, leaving extended stretches between his plundered blues and R&B singers' phrases, which gets him out of Moby's slathered-on soul cul-de-sac. (He may want to consider mothballing his own vocal chords until he's had some lessons, however.)
RJ says with glee that if you're a rap traditionalist, "there are a few songs on this record that are probably gonna piss you off and make you want to return it." But he also talks about wanting to make universally pleasing pop songs in the vein of the Beatles. This objective is unmistakable throughout Spoke. On most tracks, RJ continuously drizzles on warm, catchy elements until the drums are almost smothered; "Iced Lightning," for instance, starts with a feathery Shuggie Otis-style guitar phrase and then puts down layers of sparkly keys, smoky horns, and wistful soul-crooner vocals, each of which alone could carry a backing track for a rapper. "I'm trying to make good music that people like," he says, before quickly adding, "Unfortunately I have to admit I have this argumentative side of me that wants to pick away any popular preconceived notions people have of things."
Perhaps it is this hovering between art-school antagonism and adherence to classical songwriting conventions that makes instrumental hip hop an unwelcoming work space for many artists. Its intentions are unclear: Is it "leisure music for b-boys," as veteran local rare-groove DJ Romanowski (who will be opening for RJD2 this week) puts it, or the soundtrack to "sell a million Volkswagens," as Spin declares? For his part, RJ enjoys the blurriness of the line, and he relishes the freedom to cross back and forth as the mood strikes him. (His street cred doesn't seem to have tarnished after his song "Ghostwriter" was used in a Saturn commercial.)
"That's a challenge I'm enjoying right now," he states. "Yeah, I like melodic music, and I like a lot of accessible music. But I also like a lot of inaccessible music and I know that I work in the medium that's underground hip hop. Most of it is inaccessible, and that's fine with me. I'm not trying to change it; I'm trying to contribute to it. But for me, more and more, contributing to underground hip hop means fucking with its status quo."
Every track of Spoke resounds with RJ's lofty goals: maintaining the moldy, analog sound quality of his sources; making melodies and vocal loops that are pretty; imploding the endlessly DJ Premier-derivative staunchness of indie hip hop. As a result, each song is like a condensed mix tape, packed to the bursting point with good ideas and forgotten gems. But the other end of the bargain is that a patented RJD2 sonic signature remains elusive. This is ultimately a good thing: He continues to innovate the genre he works in, yet few, if any, can follow in his footsteps.