Blake Gillespie is from the home of C-Bo.
Hip-hop is reinvention. What existed before and since gets metabolized by the culture. Rappers re-invent themselves. Mutation is the constant. And no one is more extraordinary than Kool Keith, the doctor who essentially invented the rap alter-ego.
With the release of his collaborative album Time? Astonishing! with producer L’Orange, Keith morphs once again. This time he’s a time traveler looking back on past alien identities, cognizant of his present, earthly eccentricity.
The journey starts with his Kangol-clad 80s incarnation, as a member of Ultramagnetic MCs. It spawned a solo career in 1996 via Dr. Octagon alias, the extraterrestrial time traveling gynecologist and surgeon from the planet Jupiter. A year later, he’d return as Kool Keith with the Sex Styles LP.
However, Dr. Octagon was just one of Keith Thornton’s many costume changes. There’s also Black Elvis, Dr. Dooom, Keith Korg of the Analog Brothers, and Dr. Nogatco. But the original Octagon guise was so influential that you can see his schizophrenic vision in alter egos like MF Doom, Slim Shady, Quasimoto, Kenny Dennis, and Bobby Digital. A song like “Blue Flowers” makes you wonder what a rap concept album would sound like if it never existed.
Since his ‘96 psychic split, Kool Keith has continued to explore the weird fringes—to the point where his multiple personalities assassinate one another on record. And in a way Keith uses Time? Astonishing! to restore order in his personal time continuum. By teaming with L’Orange, we meet with a sci-fi time traveler once again, an otherworldly Keith, but the quinquagenarian rapper is subdued and no longer traveling at the speed of thought.
Time! Astonishing? finds Keith revisiting his anthropological alien side. His vision is laid out without gusto on “The Traveler.” The first verse and chorus amount to: “I am doing this, as I’ve always done, and shall continue to do because true travel is arduous.” He ruminates deadpan and laconic, always crazy but oddly in control.
If Keith is the contemplative Captain sequestered in his quarters, L’Orange is alone in mission control, stepping in as acting commander. L’Orange isn’t a re-inventor of the Keith caliber, but he’s inventive nonetheless in recreating past concept-rap tropes. The narrative interludes remind you of the vintage sci-fi/comic samples of Operation: Doomsday.
As an alumni of the supporting cast from Deltron 3030, MC Paul Barman returns for “Suspended Animation” (a dead-on reprise of “”Meet Cleofis Randolph the Patriarch”). And if you’re going to try to place this somewhere, Time? Astonishing! exists in gravitational float between Operation: Doomsday and Deltron 3030, (and thus must coexist in orbit with King Geedorah’s Take Me To Your Leader.)
Keith doesn’t take to L’Orange’s narrative the way that Del developed a universe for Deltron 3030. Even looking to past identities like Dr. Octagon and Dr. Dooom, he seems detached in comparison. It’s a testament to L’Orange’s production and meticulous post-production—that he collects and arranges the concept Keith himself listlessly conceives. And as a result, Time? Astonishing! might be the best Kool Keith record since Matthew.
In 2015, Keith is sick of feeling alien and getting the hell off this rock. It harkens back to “Earth People,” a song that echoes an afro-futurist sentiment: Earth is not my home. Time? Atonishing! successfully invites the like-minded to climb aboard Keith and L’Orange’s spaceship. L’Orange doesn’t over correct by making Parliament space-funk beats, but instead, sticks to his trademark smokey psychedelia.
In the same way that L’Orange used 50s gangster samples to help Jeremiah Jae draw modern parallels on The Night Took Us In Like Family, Time? Astonishing! digs into obscure H.G. Wellsian radio transmissions to re-imagine Keith as hobo kevlar-clad spacesuit traveler. It reinvents Octagon as time traveler on a budget, picking up galactic hitchhikers like Mr. Lif, Open Mike Eagle, and J-Live, who envision better lives on distant planets.
As a concept record Time? Astonishing! is up against stiff competition, even within the Keith catalogue. Maybe it’s slightly rehashed, but thanks to innate talent, creativity, and L’Orange’s savvy curation, the pair create another monument to the orbits of one of hip-hop’s greatest explorers.