Thursday, March 13, 2008

Del is back and he makes a Gorilla Statement

el the Funky Homosapien
The 11th Hour
[Def Jux; 2008]
Rating: 6.8
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Del the Funky Homosapien was one of indie rap's leading stars by the end of 2000, and he did it with a pair of albums that couldn't be much more diverse: Deltron 3030, a conceptual space-rap opera about an AWOL mech soldier turned supernaturally powered anti-corporate freedom fighter, and Both Sides of the Brain, where his lyrics concerned things like Dreamcast games and weed and people who smell really bad. The next year, he appeared on two singles from the smash hit Gorillaz album-- a brush with mainstream pop fame he capitalized on by dropping a few verses on Hieroglyphics' Full Circle in 2003 and then disappearing from the public radar almost completely save the occasional guest spot. This wouldn't be the first time Del's been on semi-hiatus; 1993's No Need for Alarm took seven years to receive a mass-market solo follow-up, thanks in part to Elektra terminating his contract and relegating 1998's lost classic Future Development to a delayed indie distribution four years later. But there's still cause to wonder how much popular momentum Del might have lost by ducking into the sidelines all these years.

Especially once you take into account how much momentum he's retained in just about every other department, at least if 11th Hour is any indication. Del's newest album and first for Definitive Jux is a straightforward and uncluttered record that flows surprisingly naturally for an album that's been so repeatedly delayed. Part of this could be credited to the production: This is one of those strange records where you forget most of the beats 15 minutes after you put away the CD but get completely hooked by them while they're playing. Del's production skills have been largely underrated as one of the things that keeps his albums held together, and he's stated in a few interviews that the beats on The 11th Hour came before the lyrics did-- maybe it's not obvious at first, but once it sinks in how that unobtrusive digital funk is complemented and augmented by a voice that knows every in and out of the beat's mechanical structure and jabs back at it in intricate ways, the more that the production's unpretentious simplicity makes perfect sense.

As a lyrical exhibition, almost everything that makes Del the MC he is is in full effect: A taunting, sing-songy flow, internal rhymes that remain intricate without getting too convoluted or highfalutin', and the tendency to mix tightly-packed gymnastic verbiage and straightforward talk. One vital component that's missing, however, is the detailed storytelling and earthy day-to-day humor that informed records like Both Sides of the Brain and 1991 debut I Wish My Brother George Was Here alike. What we're mostly left with, aside from a few stress-rap cuts like the self-conscious "Hold Your Hand" and the anti-rumormongering "I'll Tell You", is Del sticking to one aspect of his subject repertoire-- his skills. He's got 'em, you don't, he likes MCing and making beats, rocking crowds because he's good at it-- yeah, it's the alpha and omega of rap lyricism to big up yourself, and it's not anything Del can't back up. But the more he flaunts it-- on "Raw Sewage", "Bubble Pop", "Naked Fonk", "I'll Tell You", "Workin' It"-- the less it seems to stand out from one boast to the next. It actually comes as a relief when he manages to express it as a basketball metaphor ("Slam Dunk"), which says a lot coming from someone who sat through that tiresome Dan the Automator NBA 2K7 comp in its entirety.

Still, for an album that pushes the limits of how much you can say about so little, the stuff that's said rarely fails to be entertaining in the pure linguistically structural sense. That aforementioned flow of Del's prods into your subconscious when you're focusing on anything but the lyrics, like you're hearing fragments of a spirited conversation in an adjacent room, and when you switch your attention to the words themselves they click so well it's almost hard to believe they sound like that and still make some kind of sense, even if they look perfectly normal on paper. (One highlight, from "Last Hurrah": "The faintest notions that they're finna get some/ It's dumb, I spit some of this wickedest wisdom".) And the barrage of lyrics is exhausting without being tedious, with endlessly-parseable knots of phraseology and weird little asides everywhere to keep your attention. With the battle-centric focus of No Need for Alarm given an additional 15 years' worth of experience and perspective, The 11th Hour is a tight and ruthlessly efficient 48 minutes of boasting-- if only its lyrical personality was as outsize as the voice delivering it.

-Nate Patrin, March 13, 2008

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