City Paper is not for tourists
The Black Keys have no idea how they became Damon Dash’s favorite band. The co-founder of Roc-a-Fella Records has generated as many headlines recently for his said-to-be dire financial situation as for his music dealings, but word of his collaboration with the Akron, Ohio, garage/electric blues outfit generated universally-positive buzz—especially when the guest list of hip-hop collaborators was announced. Canonical lyricists appearing on the project include Raekwon, Mos Def, Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch and Ludacris, and even some Ol’ Dirty Bastard from the Def Jam vaults. Keys drummer Patrick Carney says Dash called them out of the blue and was quite open to their ideas. And so, on what came to be known as the Blakroc project, the Keys recorded all of the synth and guitar-driven music live, using loops but no samples, and the artists came in one by one to spit their verses. It sounded great on paper, but supergroup ventures always do, until the final, usually unfocused products are heard. Still, most everyone here sounds tight, at least on an individual basis. The Keys’ slow, driving, atmosphere-heavy landscapes feel pulled from a Jim Jarmusch film—you can almost see the smoke, the hard urban terrain, the embittered city-dwellers. And the MCs mostly bring their ‘A’ games, particularly M.O.P.’s Billy Danze—who blows Q-Tip out of the water with his triple-shot energy on “Hope You’re Happy.” Also, ODB and Ludacris on “Coochie” (which isn’t available on all versions of the album), the latter of whom who tells us about a “girl named Anna, she was from Alabama, she had some cooch that had me driving back and forth from Atlanta.” Then there’s Mos Def, who does his best Citizen Cope impression on “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo).” It shouldn’t be a surprise that these legendary MCs live up to their billings. After all, Danze could sound ferocious over your grandmother shaking her prescription pill bottle. But that doesn’t mean Blakroc succeeds as a cohesive album. Though the music and the verses sound great on their own, they don’t particularly mesh. With the exception of a stoned RZA picking up a guitar at one point, there doesn’t seem to have been much musical collaboration between the Keys and the artists, and it shows. Standout hip-hop projects often feature the MCs and producers/musicians coming together before the music is finished, but that doesn’t seem to have happened here. Will Blakroc stand the test of time? Probably not. But the concept of engaging rockers, MCs, moguls, and hipsters deserves another shot, and it may get one; the participants say another Blakroc album could well happen.