Those familiar with Tech N9ne’s “Collabos” series know that the name is misnomer. Each of the five LPs feature guests on every track, but those guests are almost exclusively Strange Music signees, resulting in cohesive but intensely insular projects. If anything, 2011’s All 6’s and 7’s is the true collaborative Tech album, with appearances that range from Lil Wayne and T-Pain to Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar. The “Collabos” instead function more as Strange Music showcases, and the aptly titled Strangeulation is certainly not an exception.
There’s no problem with Tech N9ne putting on his own artists, but Strangeulation’s creative potential is stunted by just how much those artists are trying to sound like their label head. “I don’t rap fast, I’ma leave that up to Tech and ‘em / Ces, Bernz, Krizz, Rittz, Wrek and the rest of ‘em,” newly signed Murs raps on “Hard (A Monster Made It).” He’s not kidding: almost every feature deploys the double-time, dense rhyme schemes, vocal layering and other stylistic nuances that Tech has been popularizing for more than a decade. The output is consistent, but after 17 tracks and four bonus cuts, equally exhaustive. Loyal fans are amply rewarded; those unfamiliar with the self-proclaimed “King Of Darkness” likely aren’t using Strangeulation as a starting point.
Thematically, much of the album is centered on Strange Music’s stringent independence and agency-assuming spirit. Strangeulation’s manifesto is declared in its opening lines, where a facetious Tech sings, “Smashes the masses, but the industry’s hatin’ asses.” Most of the proceeding songs form a rallying cry against mainstream and commercialized Hip Hop, with each member of Strange Music making a persuasive effort to prove that they’re going to be fine without the backing of a major label. The anti-mainstream attacks have a communal spirit, be it the four-part “Strangeulation” cyphers or gang vocals over the wailing guitar and driving stadium hook of lead single “Over It.” But the “fuck the industry” message so forcefully inscribed throughout the project is more effective when approached from an individual perspective; established names like Tech N9ne, Murs and Rittz offer more poignant reasons for going independent than fellow collaborators.
Touching so often on independence and the disregard for industry is eventually self-defeating. The standouts on Strangeulation come instead when Tech and Co. dive into more involved subject matter and tone down the rapping about rapping. “Fear” is a harrowing account of Tech N9ne’s mother losing her memory in a battle with epilepsy and lupus, and the faith-shaking questions that result. Using three different choruses, whirring 808s and elegiac vocals from Mackenzie O’Guin, “Fear” offers some of the most earnest introspection of Tech’s career. An equally trenchant discussion of addiction and alcoholism comes on “The Calling” and “Withdrawal.”
But Strangeulation isn’t without some strangely-themed posse cuts. The American Psycho-inspired “American Horror Story” is plagued by jarring alarm glitches, an unsettling hook and some throwaway lines (“I’d rather be the one pissed off, than to ever be the one pissed on” raps Ces Cru’s Godemis). Worse is “Na Na,” which finds Tech rapping, “My goodness / You’re the reason for my woodness,” over background moans and amorous guitar strums. Rittz takes the third verse to detail “leavin’ hotel comforters and sheets destroyed” when his girl is on her period, before asking if that was TMI. Probably.
Of course, Strangeulation separates itself from essentially every other release of 2014 from a purely technical standpoint. Tech N9ne’s multisyllabics are sharp as ever, while Murs spills dense rhyme schemes with his tongue firmly planted in cheek. The ascending Rittz keeps up with Tech and Krizz Kaliko and fits the Strange Music aesthetic impeccably well on “Make Waves,” and following along with all four “Strangeulation” cyphers is enough to make even the most ardent backpacker woozy. Stevie Stone continues to evolve, and the dour Kutt Calhoun shines in a diminished role.
Now five albums into the “Collabos” series, it would have been interesting to see Tech N9ne hook up with some of Hip Hop’s other independent heavyweights. Tech raps about seeing “me, K. Lamar and Macklemore sharing the same stage,” and while the major label aversion is understandable, Strangeulation only has so much upside without expanding beyond Strange Music. An artist so comfortable with cross-genre experimentation and forward-thinking lyricism played it surprisingly safe with the actual “collabos,” but Tech’s in-house team is more than good enough to keep the project in rotation for dedicated fans.
***Editor’s Note: This review has been corrected to reflect Strange Music artists Prozak and Ces Cru being referred to as “up-and-comers.” Prozak and Ces Cru have released multiple projects via Strange Music.***