There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
9th Wonder is an overachiever. In addition to concocting beats for himself and a plethora of artists, Raleigh, N.C.-based producer Patrick Douthit teaches a course called “Hip Hop in Context 1973n1997” at North Carolina Central University, his alma matter. He’s clearly a fan of the genre’s history; the tracks he produces tend to have a throwback sound in the tradition of groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Black Star, full of delicately chopped soul samples and horns, smooth but not ostentatious. He doesn’t often try to rock young asses in the club—he’s making smart songs for grown folks. But that’s not to say he’s set in his ways—he has the savvy to bring out the best in other people’s sounds. With the Durham, N.C., group Little Brother (from which he recently parted ways), he crafted regionally flavored, conscious-yet-meaty tracks that helped make the group a critical favorite. On a pair of albums with Murs, he constructed perfect West Coast backdrops for that rapper’s love songs to Los Angeles. He’s even successfully produced for mainstream acts like Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, and Mary J. Blige. Unfortunately, The Dream Merchant Vol. 2 shows he has yet to define a compelling sound for his own work. At least his 2005 solo debut, The Dream Merchant Vol. 1—named for soul icon Jerry Butler’s 1967 record, Mr. Dream Merchant—contains focused, catchy tracks. The sequel is more sophisticated sonically, but it’s unabashedly dreamy and soft, constantly pining for “back in the day.” On “Sunday,” Keisha Shontelle sings the refrain, “On Sundays, I always liked to watch the ball games, or stay all chillin’ at the parkway, a couple of my homies watchin’ people walking.” The song’s vacant, dripping-with-nostalgia sample seems plucked directly from Sesame Street. The inspiring horn hook for “Brooklyn in My Mind,” meanwhile, is buried in the mix. The album also suffers from too many guest rappers: Everyone from Saigon to Mos Def to Memphis Bleek to complete unknowns get a verse or two, making the record feel more like a compilation than a studio album. Yet when 9th Wonder leaves behind the contrived sentimentality, he soars. The album’s two best tracks feature the members of Little Brother: “No Time to Chill” injects an ounce of much-needed adrenaline, while “What Makes a Man” overlays an invigorating bass line over yet another wearying soul sample. For someone who gets paid to make other people’s personalities shine, it’s not surprising that 9th Wonder has a hard time establishing an identity of his own. But if he’s going to be a solo artist, he can’t just rely on other people’s memories of the old days. He has the skills—he just needs some soul.