Evan Nabavian knows Black Elvis ain’t dead.
Kool Keith started rapping when the Earth was young. His earliest raps drafted off of Treacherous Three and T La Rock. When he got bored, he chagrined his audience by creating gonzo alter egos that meshed the proclivities of Grant Morrison and Larry Flynt. Keith authored classics, challenged conventions, tore down walls, and offended sensibilities. He guaranteed his place in history a few times over before the turn of the century. His influence was already pervasive and monumental.
Kool Keith’s output over the last ten years suggests he’s only mildly interested in this legacy. He didn’t make another Ultramagnetic MCs album and he revisited the Dr. Octagon persona with Dan the Automator in 2018, but it is one of 16 or so albums he has released since the beginning of the decade. Keith’s music from this period is unpredictable and haphazard to the point of frivolity. You’re likely to venerate something he made in 2015 and viscerally hate something he made in 2014. He remains one of the most technically gifted rappers in the world and he demonstrates this with evident pride, but only when he feels like it.
You can sort of categorize his 2010s releases into three buckets.
The first bucket is a core of boom bap albums replete with notable yesteryear guests but devoid of nostalgia. Feature Magnetic from 2016 taps Godfather Don, Craig G, MF Doom, Mac Mall, Bumpy Knuckles, and Ras Kass as sparring partners. This bucket includes full length collaborations with Ray West and Psycho Les of The Beatnuts. But Keith steadfastly avoids the familiar. His beats are modern and sparse and his flow meandering and conversational. No callbacks to 1988. Keith told Wax Poetics about his disdain for homage in 2009: “A lot of these cats are living off their old records and can’t rhyme with the new rappers out right now. A lot of these guys are stuck in time.”
The second bucket is an array of bizarre genre detours. This includes something resembling a trap album (Controller of Trap which includes a verse from Project Pat), a grating synth-heavy album called El Dorado Driven, and a full-length collaboration with a Japanese indie band from 2009 that I’ve never been able to find. He also made a song with Smash Mouth called “Unity.” Sacrilege is sport for Kool Keith.
The third bucket is his auteur-like Total Orgasm series, volumes one through five. These self-released and largely self-produced mixtapes eschew the sci-fi trappings of Dr. Octagonecologyst and leave only Keith’s love of porn. These play like an extended visit to an adult video store where Keith is a regular and a connoisseur. The seedy aesthetic makes for difficult listening, as if Keith is trying to weed out casual fans. Dedicated listeners will discover his best work of the decade. These are not on streaming services.
Thirty years into his career, Kool Keith eludes his peers with his technical abilities. He’ll train your ear to look for a certain rhyme pattern and then stretch out his bars to make your ear search for it. Listen to him do it with virtuosic ease on “Super Hero”:
I come from a place where superheroes meet up.
The X-Men drinkin’ tea, watchin’ chicks with D cups.
Spider-Man saw Doctor Oct spittin’ off the top of a New York City bus.
City Island, eatin’ shrimps,
Throwin’ fries in water to swans and ducks.
It’d be wrong to the universe if I drive with a monster green Lamborghini up.
All the 5s come out to reunite, throw their beanies up.
Similarly, few people alive can rap like he does on “Tank Top” where his flow exploits and attacks the beat from every possible direction. Unlike some vaunted technical rappers, Keith never comes across as a boring pedant because the marvel of his technique is its looseness and malleability.
Lest you take him too seriously, Keith plays a rockstar-playboy in the second act of a biopic where luxury strains reality and sex comes cheap. Girls come up to him at shows and ask him to sign their panties. His boasts could make Action Bronson blush. He layers onto this character idiosyncrasies like a preoccupation with poop jokes — they seem to come up on every song. On “Slam Dunk” he offers, non-sequitur, “If you look close, R2D2 had a butt crack.”
Kool Keith’s 2010s work is too great to be dispersed across a dozen-plus albums, so we’ve compiled the highlights here. You’ll hear Keith trade verses with Roc Marciano, admonish a couple with bad hygiene, and dabble in Auto-Tune. You won’t hear him retread Critical Beatdown. As he declares on “Presidential Rolex,” “Wipe the golden age and everything after out my butt.” The puerile iconoclast doesn’t want to visit the museum.
- Kool Keith – Presidential Rolex
- Kool Keith – Tight Pants, Skinny Legs
- Kool Keith – Nice Nasty
- Kool Keith – Get it While U Can
- Kool Keith – New York Bitches (ft. Prince Metropolis Known, Kidmiddi Clazz Clown)
- Kool Keith – Ain’t Sweet (ft. Shade Clock Da Rappa, Dai Burger)
- Kool Keith – Super Hero (ft. MF DOOM)
- Kool Keith – MC Voltron (ft. Craig G)
- Ray West & Kool Keith – Tank Top
- LUV NY – Pressure Up (ft. Kool Keith, Roc Marciano)
- Kool Keith & Kurious – Don’t Know Why (Dave Dar Remix)
- Kool Keith – La Chacha
- Kool Keith and Denis Deft – Touch Ur Self
- Kool Keith – Slam Dunk
- Ray West & Kool Keith – AKA John Shaft
- Kool Keith – Tears (ft. Prince Metropolis Known)