Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Cunninlynguists – A Piece of Strange (review)

I’ve been a big fan of the Cunninlynguists for quite some time and I’ve always maintained that their QN5 bredren were indie artists too commercial for the underground but too smart for the mainstream. If Tonedeff is their Kanye and Pack FM their Redman, Cunninlynguists definitely fill a spot between Outkast and the Alchemist, packing Dungeonesque lyrics over soul sampling beats yet never getting the proper recognition. Their first album Will Rap 4 Food was a nice sub-indie release, unfairly overlooked for being too battle oriented, but it revealing itself to be an interesting if uncompromising record for the group. The sequel Southernunderground turned the focus up a notch with minimal battle bravado but lots of concepts both fun and serious. The addition of extra lyricist Mr. SOS seemed to fit the crew well and in general the record was well received though dodgy distribution and marketing prevented it from finding its audience. Two years later however, things have changed once again and we find the Cunninlynguists on the brink of a name change (to A Piece of Strange), a career re-orientation (as a production duo without SOS) and their darkest and best produced album yet. The group’s revolving door membership now has Kno in charge of all production and Deacon doing all of the hooks and lyrics along with side-group affiliate Natty and some guests; this new dynamic adding considerable seriousness to the project. Not an easy listen, A Piece of Strange is a bold move but mostly a successful one and certainly one that bodes well for the group’s future.

Let’s make no bones about it: A Piece of Strange is a concept album. It’s thus difficult to evaluate outside those confines. Although the plot far from literal and easy to follow (I’ll figure it out soon enough…) we see character sketches of a fractured life or lives, ranging from drug dealers to users to a racist cops going to hell. Far from the humor tinged material of Southernunderground which shifted from internet jokes to 9/11 narratives, the album is proudly “operatic” with all the benefits and pitfalls associated with this kind of material. The character(s)’s story is being told to the richest instrumentation and vocals the group have ever put together as Deacon has turned into a Pharell/Nate Dogg quality hook singer with lush funk inspired vocals and for his part, Kno elevates himself to hip hop’s best kept secret with beats that aspire to Kanye West territory only with a rougher less compromised edge. The music on the album recalls the kind of moody sample work exhibited by DJ Shadow only with a 70’s album/prog rock-sensibility and like the albums he samples from, the high ambitions are both a blessing and a curse. On one side, it’s tremendously well done and I’d be surprised to find anyone who can straight up diss this album but on the other hand like the AOR it’s based on, the album is a little pretentious. Ideas like a conversation track between a soul and St-Peter are just a little over the top, although I guess in the 80’s rock that has become 00’s Hiphop, I guess it’s preferable to be The Cunninlynguist’s Genesis than Young Jeezy’s Poison or at least equivalent to Kanye’s Queen (yes that’s a gay joke).

If one accepts the heavy life examining concept however, the album is tremendous. Track’s like Since When and the album highlight Hellfire explode with energy while downtempo material like where will you be, damnation and remember me are positively hypnotic calling attention to Deacon’s singing chops and Kno’s layered smoked out soul. Perhaps the single best moment comes at the album centerpiece Beautiful Girl: tons of “weed as a woman” tracks have been committed to wax, but this one stands as one of the catchiest and most subtle since the Clipse’s Gangsta lean. Tracks like these show potential for Kno to sell his beats to everyone from Redman to Ludacris to Young Jeezy (who would body Nothing to Give). If rumors that the group is planning to undergo a production career under the new moniker (A Piece of Strange) including collaborations with Witchdoctor (!!!) then we’re in for a treat. Guest lyricist Natti neither hurts nor saves the project sounding pretty close to Deacon vocally but adding a little extra diversity to songs that might falter as straight solos. If anything the project begins to feel oddly bipolar after several listens as while the beats and concepts are undoubtedly the most uncompromisingly bleak of their career, they’re also the most layered and likely to get praise if someone (anyone!) of importance gets off their ass and signs these guys. Longtime fans of the group may be shocked to hear the new, direr direction they’ve gone in but ultimately, the market for the internet-Pharcyde/Souls of Mischief stuff they were doing before was shrinking by the minute and the change is probably for the best. If anything they’ve delivered their third successful outing and have proved that whoever goes out to buy their beats will be in for one hell of a bargain.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

very well written. i hope CL can get some love from this album, it's truly something.

3:33 PM  

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