CunninLynguists – Oneirology (2011) – A-
It’s easy to reconcile why Pitchfork would not care about covering mainstream pop artists (up until their merger with Conde Nast anyway) (to say nothing of more niche genres), but it was always odd to me why CunninLynguists got the short end of the stick. Especially this album, whose mix of traditional hip-hop and live instrumentation all filtered through an ethereal aesthetic that approaches dream pop, is right up the indie alley of 2011. (I’m hesitant to say “hip-hop for people who …” because it’s used as much an insult as it is a compliment, and that’s unfortunately where we still are in 2017.) You can tell from the titles – even if you might need to look up “oneirology” or “predormitum” or “phantasmata” or “hypnopomp” – that they’re going for an overarching dream-theme throughout, and they deliver a more fulfilled concept than did the Roots that same year because everything was written with that concept in mind. I mean, in no other context would anyone be able to get away with “the presence becomes presents / Peasants become pheasants and soar past acceptance” or a sample as on-the-nose as the one on “Predormitum (Prologue)” because Kno changes the meaning of the classic line to serve the concept. Beats-wise, everything feels ethereal: a piercing electric guitar leads “Stars Shine Brightest” but is filtered to sound like an 80s’ saxophone. Elsewhere, an acoustic guitar is the foundation of “Phantasmata” and a flute flitters on “Looking Back”; both are lovely wafts. Even a track as slight as “Embers” has a climbing keyboard line that’s trying to mimic stars. Hooks – of which there are plenty – are direct on the first two tracks (the coda of “Darkness (Dream On)” might be the greatest use of Anna Wise’s voice ever, though Kendrick has tried repeatedly on that front) and get subtler and more soulful as the album goes on, especially on the two-part centerpiece wherein they bring high-underground profiles Freddie Gibbs and Big K.R.I.T. to help out. A few minor quibbles, including “Hypnopomp” (a Dungeon Master accidentally wandering into the album to introduce the setting) and Kno’s verse on “Enemies With Benefits”, but the former is only 2 minutes so we’ll live (the delete button exists) and the latter is redeemed by Tonedeff’s following verse, who pairs the clichés with a formidable flow. It all makes for their best album; one of the best of that year.
Big K.R.I.T. – K.R.I.T. Wuz Here (2010) – B+
Some truly vibrant production: the drum-roll that opens the mixtape that launches into its second-best hook (even ignoring K.R.I.T.’s hyping everyone up, there’s the rhythmic drive of the scratching capped off by the melodic bite of the keyboard) that’s soon followed by the mixtape’s first-best (an absolute pulse from both the vocal sample and the drums, again, to say nothing of K.R.I.T. himself). Other highlights: the soul samples of “Just Touched Down” (massive) and “Hometown Hero” (specifically the pitch-shifted bit reminiscent of early Kanye West); the piano line of “Viktorious”; the bass-line of “Glass House.” But K.R.I.T. Wuz Here is Big K.R.I.T.’s discography in miniature: it starts off great (all of those highlights are in the album’s first stretch) and slowly resolves itself to a consistency that grows wearying over-time (although “Gumpshun,” which would’ve fit fine on Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, is an easy highlight). He got better over his next three releases on the reflective stuff of “I Gotta Stay” (whose drums smack of “Elevators”); elsewhere, the strings on “Voices” are begging for a faster tempo (and the operatic female vocal sample that he deploys grows thin by that point).
CunninLynguists – Strange Journey Volume One (2009) – B
They tie everything in a really loose concept to make this appear like more than a collection of leftovers (probably), live tracks, showcases of other artists – some of which have put me off ever wanting to hear them (Supreme, in the dead middle of the first fucking song: “One girl hit the bathroom, I went after, probably / It was totally destroyed, and I ain’t talkin’ about the feces / The toilet was lyin’ on the floor in pieces / She literally shitted in the toilet so hard / That it split and got obliterated, had to get her load off”) and three remixes of songs available on Dirty Acres (though admittedly, it was nice hearing Killer Mike circa 2009 rapping over a beat worth a damn). And since it’s a collection of leftovers, I won’t dwell too much on the fact that the interjecting “um”’s makes “Broken Van (Thinking Of You)” unlistenable. But some really inspired moments throughout, like the plucked strings that Kno brings in for the final verse in “Nothing But Strangeness”, the zippy riff of “Move”, the rhymes in the first half of Deacon’s verse on the humourous “Never Come Down” and the simply lush beats of both “Spark My Soul” and “Die For You.”