U.S.S.R.: Life From the Other Side
Apparently it takes some time for a Russian-born, London-based Soviet sympathizer to build a reputation in the tightly knit American hip-hop underground. DJ Vadim's initial recordings for his own Jazz Fudge label, with tempos well below 80 beats per minute and occasional appearances from French rapper Jupiter, were simply impenetrable to hip-hop heads chanting the “keep it real” mantra; Vadim's mostly instrumental releases after signing to Ninja Tune crept and crawled further into molasses-slow left field abstraction. But the secret desire of all British producers shunted off to the trip-hop bin is to be accepted by the stateside beats and rhymes hard corps, so U.S.S.R. is Vadim's subway token to the world of authentic lyrical boom bap, four years after he put out his first work.
U.S.S.R.: Life From the Other Side sees Vadim teaming with MCs with street cred galore on nearly half its 25 tracks. To accommodate his guests, he brings the tempo up to head-nod speed and arranges his trademark staccato drums and sharp pieces of found sound around their individual verbal styles. For “Viagra” — featuring El-P of Company Flow and associate BMS trading abbreviated two-bar verses between interruptions from a voice saying, “Next!” — Vadim uses metallic cellos for a haunting, almost stomach-churning effect. Skinnyman, a London rude boy, slips into Caribbean inflections over plucks from what sounds like a tightly strung mandolin on “Life from the itchy side.” Poet Sarah Jones completely deflates the adolescent sexual politics endemic to the lyrics of male MCs with a Gil Scott-Heron parody (“Your revolution will not be you flexing your little sex and status to express what you feel”).
Ironically, the weakest takes on U.S.S.R. are its instrumental tracks — Vadim continually relies on corny vocal samples taken from old novelty records to fill in the spaces over otherwise worthy beats. Splicing a children's record so that a bubbly female voice spells out Vadim (“V is for vegetable … A is for apple”) is slightly clever once, but quickly becomes tiresome. His less than inventive scratching also rubs against the wonderfully opaque production on the record. The songs featuring guest vocalists and turntablists are some of the year's finest hip-hop collaborations; the others keep it just this side of monumental.