After four decades, Kool Keith has continued to carve his niche as part-perennial oddball, part-trailblazer in Hip Hop. With a catalog of nicknames that parallel his lengthy music catalog, the Ultramagnetic emcee’s de facto leader has undoubtedly been the Carl Sagan of Hip Hop, “living astro” since his group’s 1984 debut single “Space Groove.” As a solo artist, Keith has also pushed the envelope in rap by innovating the “concept album” forward with his classic 1997 release, Dr. Octagonecologyst. That classic featured revered producer and deejay extraordinaire Dan The Automator and DJ Shadow, respectively.
If you have never listened to a Kool Keith song or album, you have to be aware of his avant-garde approach to lyricism; purposefully off-beat cadences with a tangential delivery in which every couplet in his flow eschews straight-forward rhyming. Also, his metaphors range from the obscure and child-friendly, to pornographic. Keith makes you giggle and feel glorified in the name of rap nerd-purism. Every time, the artiste seamlessly finds a way to simultaneously cause heads to nod and brows to wrinkle among both rap fans and jaded music critics as if they were taking psychiatric inkblot tests with breakbeats on blast.
The Bronx-bred lyricist’s eighteenth solo release Time? Astonishing! Created with Nashville-based producer L’Orange serves as a Back To The Future-esque voyage to the late nineties and post-Y2K era. Keith was thriving at that time and rode the coattails of his successful Dr. Octagon persona by releasing left-field albums like First Come, First Served with Bay Area producer KutMasta Kurt, Black Elvis/Lost In Space, Pimp To Eat, Matthew, Spankmaster, and Diesel Truckers. With L’Orange playing the part of Doc Brown to Kool Keith’s Marty McFly, Time? Astonishing! has its moments that are both comforting to the cerebral and, maybe, to a stoner who has nothing else better to do than commence to star travel on a lazy afternoon.
The album’s intro begins with the sounds of a broken clock. From the jump, you can tell that the Mello Music Group producer has not departed far from his approach to his stellar rap collaboration from Jeremiah Jae to cater to Keith’s eccentricity. This album is awash in WWE and astronomy references. Keith lives up to his “kool” moniker by not seeming like an angry rap veteran lambasting how popular rappers and major record labels like he has on many of his solo records. He lets loose on standout cuts like the cosmic “The Traveler” featuring underground rap legend J-Live, and “The Green Ray” by saying “This is Hip Hop indulged / Upper-class penmanship” to speak to his take on authorship and originality in writing rhymes. The downbeat, jazzy brass-laden track he sets off by saying, “The pedigree is newborn / Rap crisis is deformed / The sixth-hand unicorn / The character got track going strong / Everything made is bronze / Horses of shining armor / Tank with biting piranhas.” Understandably, most listeners would react like “Huh?” But art is in the eye of the beholder. The lead single of the album “The Wanderer” is where Keith is most typically himself, posing as a nomadic wordsmith with no destination for the listener over a sauntering piano-loop. Also, it starts with a 1970s Saturday morning cartoon-like intro to set the tone for weirdness.
Other notable tracks are “Upwards, To Space!” and Open Mike Eagle’s solo track “Meanwhile, Back Home,” which sounds like it was made on a dusted-off four-track recorder in a SoCal basement circa 1999. Another banger “This New World” is a rap cipher on Mars, with a boom-bap flare that would make any rap fan strap on their backpack and travel on a spaceship with Kool Keith, Blu, Montage, and Run The Jewels DJ Trackstar on the scratches.
Weaker moments on the album come in “I Need Out Of This World,” “Dr. Bipolar” the return of MC Paul Barman on “Suspended Animation,” who you may recall from Deltron 3030, serving the same purpose for Time? Astonishing! but he fails to garner much interest as a filler track. But the album serves its purpose, and time has certainly served Kool Keith well into his middle age.