Ghost World

RJD2 creates spy flick cinemascapes for strip mall fugitives

Columbus, Ohio, home of the Limited. Where faux-historic "walking malls" and once-working-class now-yoga-class neighborhoods front as urban two miles from churning Caterpillar fleets. Tornado watches. The State Fair. The Big Ten. Sound familiar? No Big Sky, though. No view west. The rust-belt stepchild, Ag-Ech Mecca at the edge of the Appalachian South. And if you don't think you can hear all of that stirring in RJD2's hip-hop cinemascape--along with Bond and Blondie, the Beats and the Beatles, Morricone, Mancini, Massive Attack, Mothra--you're not listening. It's all in there deep.

For those of you who have never heard of El-P or Definitive Jux, RJD2's Deadringer is probably the DJ record to buy this year. (Nuff respect to the heads, but you don't have to know Can Ox from a can of Schlitz to feel this album.) Our Ohio boy's tracks diverge from the chaotic noise experiments and gritty lyrical spew of Def Jux indie hip-hop label mates like the Weathermen, Cannibal Ox, and Aesop Rock. Instead, RJD2 gets closer to the crate-diving lushness of DJ Shadow--whose 1996 Endtroducing is obviously a polestar and whose much-anticipated recent record marked a new stylistic direction. In lots of ways, Deadringer seems like the "real" DJ Shadow follow-up that fin-de-siècle nostalgists were hoping for.

But it's more than that. This is a sensitive cat. And his sensitivity has less to do with sound-boy erudition than an understanding of the pulse of real emotion. Not a psychedelic sailor or bricolagist, he's certainly not eavesdropping on liposuctions or looking for beauty among the glitches. He just wants to score your life, to do what he can to elevate your daily heroics to cinematic greatness--not to, like, find you in the nosebleeds and put you on the Jumbotron. This is the music of your road-trip squints into endless flatness, your river walk home past rusted grain elevators, your bleary overslept rush to meet the dude with the classic Nova, your kisses flickering through the windows of the F Train. This is keeping it real.

On my reviewer's copy of Deadringer, the first track, "The Horror," comes after the now-ubiquitous copyright-protecting Promobot begs me (not threatens, mind you) not to bootleg the disc. The song's siren synth, skittered snare, and horn blasts stoke anticipation--opening credits all the way. A sci-fi vocal sample ("time time time to understand the monster") is a matter-of-fact nod to the creative demiurge. On "Salud," an English voice intones, "Okay, this is the first record I've made under my own control entirely...some of the stuff I like very much, some of the stuff I quite like..." On "Smoke and Mirrors," a synth pulses over a sad trombone progression, buoying the soul-blues lament, "Who knows what tomorrow may bring/Maybe it will bring my love to me." It's a bold venture into Moby territory, establishing RJ's ability to work in soul samples without Moby's isolato detachment. Without being injurious, condescending, capricious. On the scratchy, ass-shaking "Good Times Roll Pt. 2," funk shouting is unironically at one with the busy track. A second vocal sample functions as a high-bass descending line. Where the famously star-made vegan has made a car-ad fortune off deft manipulation of blues shouts, RJ seems to be too in love with what he's found to let it simply signify "sadness" or "abandon."

"Ghostwriter" begins with a falling bass reminiscent of Portishead trip hop--but ingratiating staccato ascending horns, waterfall female backing ahs, and a wah-wah guitar arrive to take it somewhere else entirely. An otherworldly sandpaper vox screeches, "All I know..." and trails into desperation. Tracks with RJ's rapper pals are less strong--though "June," (featuring Copywrite) is a standout with its a piano/guitar plink, slow, jungly ripple, and well-ridden ride cymbal punctuated by car-horn jabs.

Deadringer saves the best stuff for last, and post-last. After all is said and done, exalted and wrung (17 songs' worth), there's a beautiful gift. Wait a few minutes after track 17 and it begins, over warm beats, cockle-shell clopping, and an action-thriller synth hook. An Eighties-clean R&B sample achingly implores, "Yoooo are gone/I'm so all alone.../I say as I stare at the ceiling/'Cause I neeeed you, baby." The anonymous, radio-filler vocal of the sample is treated with an elevating respect, the gravitas of ominous keyboards, new beats and clicks. Even little Promobot gets a chance to scratch-rap his one essential request.

"Work," the "official" last track on Deadringer recasts the blues classic "Something You Got," as a hot-snare grooving Bacharach crooner, rainy with lonely xylo-tumbles. You know it even before the deal-sealing bonus: Something RJD2's got is gonna make you "work all day." And of course, he'll return the favor. Ah ah whoa whoa.

 
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