The Anticon collective might be the most maligned Hip Hop crew of all time. They were borne of an era where originality wasn’t an occasional well-publicized freak out or Auto-Tuned side project, it was constantly expected. No biting allowed. Anticon were direct descendants of style obsessed otherworldly emcees like Pharoahe Monch and Saafir but as crew consisting primarily of white and/or well educated and/or suburban rappers, their otherworld seemed, well, a little too other. The average Hip Hop listener responded somewhere between hate and indifference. So the collective withdrew, they slowed down on rapping and began to make, for lack of a better term, white people music, limping towards indie rock and more experimental electronic aspirations. theFREEhoudini, the latest album (disguised as a mixtape and a teaser for their ‘proper’ full length CrownsDown) from the labels flagship rapper/producer duo Themselves has been billed as their formal return (or apology?) to the world of Hip Hop.
So it’s odd that the tapes relationship to the genre would be nearly unrecognizable to the average Hip Hop head. At least on first listen. Dose One is rhyming again but his trademark pinched nose chipmunk triple time and multi tracked flow is such an acquired taste that it makes E-40 [click to read] look downright accessible in comparison. And Jel‘s beats owe more to Aphex Twin or Nine Inch Nails than Marley Marl [click to read] or Pete Rock [click to read], littered with sporadic bursts of noise and extended feedback drones. But they simultaneously pay homage to the genre that birthed them, slyly slipping in coded references to their predecessors, like the crossbred interpolation of both Slick Rick and slept on Camden, New Jersey crew the Krown Rulers (“Lick The Balls” x “Kick The Ball”).
Both Dose and Jel have mastered of their respective crafts, but are almost technical to a fault. As a purely stylistically display Houdini‘s hyper fast rapping and glitched-out beat spazzes occasionally border on breathtaking, but more often just induce headache. The success of Lil Wayne [click to read] might suggest that there is no longer a line for the experimental rapper to cross, but there is, and that line is intelligibility. Dose and Jel succeed in pushing boundaries but do so at the expense of their content. While fanboys will delight in this density, the uninitiated will struggle to decode it.
Which is unfortunate because, during the more lucid moments, Dose seems to be writing smart and intricately constructed raps. Funny ones, too. He berates rappers for being “interns”, threatens to “wolf” the weakest rapper in the herd and dreams of killing his landlord (“if it gave me the apartment I would do it now“). That his babbling often translates roughly into little more than oblique battle raps is just another dimension of his Hip Hop tribute. Dose is finding the most complex and self serving way possible to tell you how much better he is than his peers and imaginary foes. Because that’s what rappers do. theFREEhoudini is just boom bap twisted beyond recognition, raw Hip Hop obscured by noise bursts and thesaurus abuse and identity politics.