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There’s good reason hiphop heads hate cLOUDDEAD: The Oakland, Calif., hiphop group has never really made hiphop. Or at least so says one of its members, Odd Nosdam. In an interview with U.K. online mag The Milk Factory, the DJ suggests, “cLOUDDEAD is melodically delivered poetry over beats with sampled and hand played sounds.” He may be splitting hairs, but he’s totally right: What with the noisy tracks, the beats that make club remixes a challenge, and the supersmart lyrics delivered by nasal-voiced MCs—not to mention a penchant for collaborating with the occasional British postrock outfit—there’s not much for your average Jay-Z nut to grab on to.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Nosdam is incapable of producing a beat-driven, hook-laden album, as he proves on Sole’s latest, Live From Rome. An indie-hiphop vet who says he was burned by the mainstream at the ripe old age of 15—suffice it to say it involved an eager young rapper, Kris Kross’ management company, and a trip to Florida—Sole is also a founder of the Bay Area’s Anticon Records, which isn’t exactly known for its crossover success. Indeed, the former Tim Holland’s online bio might as well be referring to the label rather than the man when it strings together the words “[o]verly idealistic, outspoken, uncompromising, and frustrated.”
And it shows, at least lyrically. Live From Rome’s 17 cuts are laced with indictments of everything from the mainstream to the educational system to organized religion to the military to, well, the mainstream. From “Self Inflicted Wounds”: “Michael Jackson saves his career selling off the Beatles catalogue/Every inch of this planet a laissez-faire death trap/Culture is our greatest weapon…/One of the many reasons I should stop recording.” From “Dumb This Down”: “Kindness is within our power, fondness is not/Under the false umbrella of hope, lives are sold, people are bought/Somebody once told me, all men were created equal/You’re not created in a womb, you’re created in a classroom by rich people.” And from “Sin Carne”: “Pop stars holding on by their last thread, following orders/Migrating birds shot out of sky for male bonding/The execs, diplomats and exiles propose toasts for the legal slaughter of intimacy, the assault on rationality.”
It’s ranting, to be sure. And the sheer number of shifting—but consistently anti-authoritarian—ideas on offer suggests that Sole’s mental state may border on pathological. Of course, one way of fighting the system is by creating a system of your own, and there isn’t a word here that doesn’t help prop up the MC’s madly teetering worldview. We live in a place where we’re “trained as individuals, watered as trees to be offset against the dwindling forestside.” We’re “puppets, cannibals, satellite shadows, businessmen, inmates, free thinkers and cattle.” We’re “lost in a perpetual present/Words as useless as seatbelts on airplanes.” Somehow, paragraphs’ worth of this almost nihilistic material is crammed into phrasing that flows evenly and goes down smooth—and, in some cases, Micro Machine Man– fast. It’s done so well that, if you don’t take a gander at the lyric sheet, you’ll think everyone’s having a good time.
Sole can also thank his producer pals. For all the rhetoric and manifesto-waving, Live From Rome boasts some surprisingly welcoming tracks. The deep self-questioning Sole indulges in on “Self Inflicted Wounds” is matched with a stuttering but irresistible beat and a hummable melody by fellow Anticonian Alias. On “Dumb This Down,” Nosdam softens Sole’s ranting with a rolling beat and a swelling synth drone that sounds like Stereolab back when all Stereolab songs sounded the same. He takes a similar approach to “Sin Carne,” adding a bass sample that makes the tune almost strut-worthy. This approach plays out over much of the album: Though Sole never lets up with his harsh observations, the tracks make his words partner to tunes that may be based on “overly idealistic” and “uncompromising” ideas but are still actually quite nice to listen to.
Even better, those ideas are expressed by a guy who knows that there are limits to self-righteousness. Album-opener “Cheap Entertainment,” for example, touches its maker with the same brush that elsewhere tars Debbie Gibson and Ice Cube. “I’m a number one hit, the best seller,” Sole raps. “All I had to do was hide and wait for everyone to die…./If I was a religious man, I’d pray for an apocalypse/If I was me, I’d still pray for an apocalypse.” It’s not the only time the p-word pops up: In the spooky, swirling “Locust Farm,” the MC admits, “I’ve lived like an atheist while praying under my breath for some saint to save us.” In “On Martyrdom,” the spirituality is even more complex—and, above all, totally sincere: “Got a hole in my head, all that leaks falls in grace/Got a god-abandoned smile on my god-abandoned face.” By the time the track ends, with our hero wishing he “could make a song that would end all the pain in the world,” you’ll wish the heads were listening after all: Sole can show them exactly how to turn their hate into love.
As Nosdam and Sole have more or less reconciled with hiphop, one of the former’s cLOUDDEAD collaborators, Doseone, has been busy embracing an entirely different style: laptop pop. This is nothing new for Dose, who appeared as a guest on Hood’s glitchy 2003 album, Cold House.
But on the self-titled debut long-player by 13 & God, the man whose nasally voice is easily one of the more obvious characteristics of any project he’s a part of isn’t merely a guest. He’s a full-on partner, working with his Themselves bandmates Jel and Dax Pierson and members of the Munich, Germany– based metal-turned-techno-ish outfit the Notwist. The result, a split release between Anticon and Notwist label Alien Transistor, sounds surprisingly cohesive for something that was made by parties separated by an ocean.
That is, the arrangements, done in the now-overfamiliar style of cold ’n’ pretty electronica groups such as Múm and Solvent, are well-crafted and restrained to a fault. “Perfect Speed,” for example, is a sparse quickie that’s little more than a nice melody. And though “Tin Strong” may have swiped parts of a Nine Inch Nails tune, it’s anything but dark and doom-laden: The beats bounce and bubble in the best post-glitch fashion. Too bad, though, that that’s about as interesting as the track making gets around here.
Indeed, without Dose’s whine, 13 & God is totally ignorable. The MC adds some welcome rhythmic interest with his deft and balanced rapping on tracks such as “Men of Station” and “Soft Atlas,” pushing the bland production into the background and allowing the tunes to find an entirely other level of groove. But elsewhere—such as on the six minutes of samples and drones that make up the album-closing “Walk”—his absence is palpable.
Dose also provides 13 & God’s only sonic surprise: Though he mostly delivers his vocals in his usual adenoidal manner, once in a while he also takes a whack at being a regular old singer. It’s something he turns out to be good at—not that it adds all that much to such somnolent tracks as “Afterclap” and “If.” Boring Bavarian electronica, it turns out, is still just boring Bavarian electronica, no matter how many rappers decide to sing along.CP