In Kokayi’s world, most rappers fall into one of two categories: robots or dinosaurs.
Robots blindly follow popular trends and thrive by reinventing the lyrical wheel, while dinosaurs are archaic fossils, too old to compete in a game dominated by brash 20-somethings.
Carl “Kokayi” Walker, a Grammy-nominated veteran of D.C. hip-hop, fits somewhere in-between. While his 20s are a little ways behind him, he damn sure isn’t a dinosaur, as evidenced by his raucous stage shows in Chocolate City and beyond. It’s also unwise to merely call him a rapper. Sure, Kokayi rhymes occasionally, but his vast influences reside within the shattering drum cymbals and big guitar riffs of Led Zeppelin and KISS. “Everything I do has to be innovative,” Kokayi told City Paper in a recent interview.
Such is the freedom of Robots & Dinosaurs, an unconventional long-player that proves that artists—-especially those in this saturated rap region — can meld genres without sounding schizophrenic. What results is an exceptional record that is easily one of the best albums of the year, and the finest recording in Kokayi’s small discography.
In hip-hop, rappers not named Shawn Carter seem to lose freshness by age 40, while rockers, blues, and soul singers remain relevant well into their 60s. It’s a harsh reality that rests at the heart of Robots & Dinosaurs and its candid centerpiece, the piano-laced “Obdare.” (pronounced O-ba-dare). Here, Kokayi raps: “Now can I tour at 60 like the rock idol/If I still can do it, my art is still vital/But I still got questions ’bout this mic in my hand/Should I hang it up for good and just play in the band.”
Sonically, Kokayi’s Robots trumps his last recording—-2007’s Mass Instructions—-with its seamless song transitions, unblemished mixes, and flair for the unorthodox. That’s not to say Instructions didn’t dabble in the dramatic; as songs like “DCB,” “Babylon Hey Nah,” and “Stress!!” were particularly magnetic. Overall though, Kokayi’s last offering was more reserved, forthright, and celebratory, while Robots is a full-scale assault on the mundane. On “RoxTar,” for instance, he fuses psych-rock with bouncy synths to salute D.C.’s legendary bands and others, while the club-ready “Ninety 5,” featuring QN5 labelmates Substantial and Tonedeff, persists as an even-tempered trunk-rattler.
While the album is mostly upbeat, it also has a reflective side. The chilling “Nicotine,” a coming-of-age tale about childhood love, is the first of two concept songs that discuss love’s precursors and aftereffects. “Only,” with its somber piano loop and deep bass, tackles the struggles of bachelorhood and pangs of loneliness. “I’m not so lucky wit love, yo/I been ’round a time or two before,” Kokayi sings on the chorus. “Autumn Rules,” produced by fellow D.C. resident Oddisee, is by far the album’s most personal song, detailing Kokayi’s bout with depression and thoughts of suicide. Although remarkable, Robots has one blemish in the form of “Drive,” an out-of-context, midtempo, West Coast groove that stalls the album’s flow.
Although Kokayi is schooled in hip-hop, he defies the standard. Instead, he’s a full-fledged musician with an album stamping his extensive skill set. With Robots & Dinosaurs, the Southwest native proves that urban music is not just a game for kids—-there are enough toys for everyone to play nice.
Robots & Dinosaurs is available digitally on qn5 and iTunes. Physical copies will be available Oct. 19.