he term “pink mist” is used to describe two things: a type of flower preferred by cottage gardeners and the bloody aftermath of a bomb’s explosion. By simultaneously suggesting beauty, serenity, and atrocity, those two words are the best portrayal of what Abandoned Language accomplishes over the span of its 63 minutes. Dälek were already one of underground hip-hop’s most consistent and challenging acts, but Abandoned Language is a masterstroke that should right their status as being one of the most overlooked.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. The hip-hop MVPs of 2006 might seem like a recycled list from 2005, but it’s not like we had much of a choice. The new recruits on major labels that were releasing albums buckled under unreasonable expectations and scrutiny. Those that weren’t releasing albums were content to play toy soldiers in pointless intramural beefs that their benefactors were too busy to fight themselves. And that precious American underground without a writer in the lot—how damning was it that the runaway undie pick of the year was a sample collage assembled by a dead guy?
There’s always the underlying assumption that highly touted albums of this type have to push hip-hop into bold new frontiers, but the surprising thing about Abandoned Language is how accessible it is. This isn’t the gnarled thickets of Def Jux lyricism or the Unicron-like genre consumption of Subtle. Dälek’s rhymes are almost always completely intelligible (when they’re not being intentionally manipulated in production) and the beats are jeep rumblers built on deep bass and hard-hitting snares; you can safely recommend Dälek to someone who feels hip-hop hasn’t had much to offer since Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn.
Abandoned Language opens with its title track, a 10-minute juggernaut wide enough to feel like its own album. Spanning themes that are delved into with greater detail throughout, Dälek (also the name of the MC) drops jewels on governmental paranoia (“They pass manila folders and a hundred thousand die / The public schools are built with factory workers in their eyes”), race and culture struggle, embarrassment at hip-hop playacting, and calls for self-empowerment. Roll your eyes at the “conscious rap”-ness of all of it, but you haven’t heard it done this well in a very long time.
The true genius of Abandoned Language is found in the production. Stunning in stereos and nearly mindblowing in headphones, producer Oktopus evokes the ghetto-as-ghost-town feel of Liquid Swords or Hell On Earth with tracks that are dense, but never cluttered. It’s almost like watching a thunderstorm form, where clouds build with suffocating intensity until the sky bursts and it’s coming down in buckets. Oktopus clearly understands how to complement Dälek’s voice and frees him from the constraints of spitting 16’s; along with the title track, there’s “Content to Play Villain,” where Dälek fights with distortion and becomes a brilliantly used sound effect, Oktopus allowing only key lyrics to rise above the fray.
While Abandoned Language is more uniform in sound than past efforts, it’s no one-trick pony. Close listening reveals intriguing production touches like the jackhammering bongo in “Paragraphs Relentless,” while “Starved for Truth” matches the nervous anger of the lyrics with splattered drum patterns and a white-hot saxophone squall. The obviously titled murder soundtrack of “Lynch” shows off a little, but it doesn’t disturb the flow.
In spite of Abandoned Language’s brilliance, it’s pointless to debate whether it’s going to “save the game” or whatever. The most resonant line on the album comes early: “as long as younger heads quote this, then it ain’t all hopeless.” People predisposed to liking something like “This Is Why I’m Hot” are going to do so regardless of whether or not Dälek exists. But there is a contingent of hip-hop fans who have been impatiently waiting at least since Madvillainy for a record rooted in tradition that offers something just a bit more skewed and challenging. Abandoned Language is that album. With El-P, Wu-Tang, Aesop Rock, and Madvillain set to drop in 2007, we already had indications that the wagons were circling, but this less-heralded Jersey duo have already threatened to overshadow anything else hip-hop has to offer this year.