Caption: Hoot Suite: Rapper Awol One and producer Factor reunite for Owl Hours.

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Orange County, Calif., MC Awol One is likely to show up on any list of your “favorite rapper’s favorite rappers.” A member of Los Angeles’ influential Shape Shifters crew, he has collaborated with everyone from Kool Keith to Atmosphere to KRS-One during his nearly 15 years in the game. Somehow, though, he has never managed to penetrate the mainstream culture the way his contemporaries Aesop Rock and Slug have. One problem is that he doesn’t have the confessional, literary storytelling style of those rappers—he prefers to rhyme in cryptic, oddball tidbits. And he lacks the force of a juggernaut indie hip-hop label, like Definitive Jux or Rhymesayers, behind him. His last CD, 2007’s Only Death Can Kill You, went largely under the radar—despite offering up generous portions of Awol One’s left-field wit and experimentation with cadence and meter. The album also highlighted the talent of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, producer Factor, who reunites with Awol One on Owl Hours. Here, Factor’s beats vary wildly in style, moving from rowdy hand-clappers to minor-keyed downers to progressive jazz/hip-hop hybrids. Though all of Factor’s tracks are unique and well-crafted, they don’t always offer obvious hooks to grab onto. But they’re well-suited for Owl Hours’ focus on the chaotic last few years of Awol’s life. Tracks like “Celebrate” and “Glamorous Drunk” feature the MC observing inebriates making fools of themselves, before realizing that he’s often one of them. “Only when you’re really drunk is when you smoke/Counting down every day until you croak,” he rhymes on “Glamorous Drunk.” “Welcome to your future/Is it everything that you thought it would be?” This dark territory is also fertile terrain for Xzibit, a long-time friend of Awol’s who took some time off from pimping rides to executive-produce the album and offer his brutal, furious flow to album highlight “Brains Out.” Over Factor’s menacing, pounding, live-bass beat, the two MCs take the downward spiral theme to its logical conclusion. “I’m sick and tired of being stuck in the same route/I’ve got a date with myself, and we blowin’ my brains out,” Xzibit raps on the chorus. The album doesn’t end so bleakly, however, as final track “Sunset Sandwich” sees Awol getting his act together and deciding he has plenty to live for: “Write as much as I can/Got to step to the plate and be a man/Workin’ late, owl hours.” I recently interviewed Awol One and he said that he has transitioned from an irresponsible substance-abuser to a devoted father and savvy businessman who limits his boozing and pot-smoking to the weekends. Owl Hours explores that journey from its start to—hopefully—its end. Awol is still staying up as late as the owls, but these days, rather than using that time to drink himself senseless, he’s perfecting his craft. —Ben Westhoff