June 20, 2012

Son Raw is trading arms in countries whose names you can’t pronounce.

According to conventional wisdom, Alchemist should be in the twilight of his career. After all, by the time they’d racked up this many years in the game, his mentors Muggs & Premier were settling into comfortable lives as established producers, trotting out well-worn formulas to polite applause. Not so for Allen the chemist, after a career built on high quality street singles, his ambitions have only grown larger in recent years as he’s both explored the pop limelight as Eminem’s touring DJ and ensured his place among the underground kings through collaborations with subterraneans  Oh No and Roc Marciano. In light of Hip-Hop’s recent shift towards the experimental, it’s the latter that’s proven most interesting and his Russian Roulette project may well be his best full length release since 2007’s Return of the Mac with Prodigy.

Splitting the difference between a Donuts style beat-tape and a rap compilation, Russian Roulette cannily avoids the pitfalls of both. It’s a heavily psychedelic album but the intrusion of proper rapping every couple of minutes keeps it from becoming background music while the musical interludes and brief verses ensures that it isn’t just another collection of rap songs left on the cutting room floor. Like his collaborator Oh No’s Ethiopium, it draws all samples from a single region but while you almost expect East Africa to be funky, the former USSR’s output is a revelation sampling-wise. Drawing on Frank Zappa inspired guitar workouts, Russian Roulette actually sounds *gasp* – PROG… but thankfully avoids maximalist Kanye West territory in favor a crate digger’s ear for detail. One can imagine an enormous amount of Cali kush was consumed during the production of this project and the results are appropriately scatterbrained: rather than let Soviet-singles run long, every track falls under 3 minutes ensuring only the finest moments made the cut. Throw in a murderer’s row of emcees including Roc Marci, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Schoolboy Q and Mr. Muthafuckin Exquire and you’ve got all the fixings for your next blunt session.

Alchemist was hesitant to call Russian Roulette an album but it may well be the best representation of his aesthetic yet: one grounded in the original school of underground rap without being beholden to alienating traditionalism. Though previous releases under his own name didn’t quite reach the bar set by Pete Rock’s Soul Survivor series and his rapping will never match up to Diamond or Large Pro, Russian Roulette’s balsy format marks it as an essential evolution in a beat tape landscape that’s been sorely in need of a kick in the pants to compete with electronic-oriented work by artists such as the Brainfeeder crew. Rap fans may balk at the guitar riffs and Action Bronson alone ensures that it will never be dinner party music but for fans plugged directly into Hip-Hop’s mainframe, this is that next shit.

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