This Rock & Roll-meets-Rap hybrid thing has been done before, and the formula stays the same almost every time. Once in a while, a Travis Barker remake or a mash-up (i.e. Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s Collision Course) will change things up. But often the rebellious nature of one genre is meshed with the rebellious nature of the other, spawning acts like Limp Bizkit and Crazytown. But former Roc-A-Fella co-founder Damon Dash has ideas of his own: instead of relying on the loud, hair-flinging elements of Rock, he threw Blues duo The Black Keys in the studio with a group of 11 lauded emcees over a reported time span of 11 days. What resulted is Blakroc, one of the most compelling releases of either genre in recent memory.
Some of the emcees on the Blakroc project were already multifaceted, so working with The Black Keys provided further opportunity to spread their wings. “On The Vista” sees Mos Def using Keys member Dan Auerbach’s serene guitars to help him paint naturalistic imagery, and RZA’s sloppy delivery actually makes sense when it’s paired with angst-ridden strings and drums to narrate paranoia around a former lover. Jim Jones also displays a surprising versatility here—he candidly describes the poverty mindset on “Ain’t Nothin’ Like You,” and he uses “What You Do To Me” to spill about a woman’s control of his heart while Auerbach and Nicole Wray support with croons of weakness, heartbreak and closure.
Whenever The Black Keys’ soundbeds aren’t pushing the emcees to their limits, they’re easily fitting into the Hip Hop aesthetic. While the emcees here carry their load, the Keys’ instrumentation still keeps tried and true subject matter—RZA and Pharaohe Monch’s braggadocio on “Dollaz and Sense,” and NOE and Nicole Wray’s exhausted tales of hustling on “Done Did It”—from sounding formulaic. And after the dusk of his opus Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, Raekwon sounds right at home on “Stay Off The Fuckin’ Flowers,” because Auerbach’s eerie strings and Patrick Carney’s plodding percussion are as murky as those the Chef has had throughout his entire career.
At times, Blakroc’s sonic elements distract with their depth and eccentricity, requiring extra listens to process the music and the lyrics equally. Billy Danze’s verse on “What You Do To Me” disappointingly diverts from the subject matter, and “Hope You’re Happy,” which features Q-Tip, Danze and Wray, doesn’t leave a lasting impression. But as a total project, Blakroc wins with experimentation that doesn’t go too far left, and by meshing different types of music and artists while maintaining an organic feel. Hopefully, the minds behind future genre-bending projects are taking notes.