ef Jux, the independent hop label run by Company Flow alumnus El-P, has been spending the better part of the last two years turning the hip-hop underground on its collective ear. Critically acclaimed releases by the likes of Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and El-P himself prominently feature dense, often abrasive layers of sound combined with a healthy dose of gritty and complex lyricism. The results are nearly always at the very least interesting, and quite frequently spectacular; in spite of this, I have found that I’m not always in the mood for an entire album worth of Def Jux grit. It’s not easy to listen to, and is music that truly demands your full attention to be appreciated and enjoyed.
And then along came RJD2, receiving all the attention its Def Jux brethren had deservedly received upon their individual releases. But RJD2 is different; he’s a producer, not a rapper, and his beats are far removed from the rugged density found on the majority of other Def Jux output. Some of it is even decidedly upbeat, which is a little shocking if you’ve been listening to CanOx’s “A B-Boy Alpha” or El-P’s “Stepfather Factory” much lately.
Have no fear though, everyone’s favorite independent-as-fuck label isn’t selling out; RJD2’s Deadringer album is more of a reflection on El-P’s good taste than it is an attempt to tone down the Def Jux sound. I have no problem saying this because RJD2 makes it clear in a hurry that he knows how to craft a mighty fine beat, which he does smoothly and often quite beautifully over the length of the album; peep the warm, shimmering tones on “2 More Dead” or the lovely transition from funky horns to a wash of ethereal vocals and light guitar bounce on “Cut Out to FL” for prime examples of RJD2’s mastery of the mixing board. RJD2 also proves capable of making beats for MC’s, as he demonstrates on the shuffling beat of “Final Frontier” with Blueprint, the keep-it-real anthem “F.H.H.” with Jakki da Motamouth, and the introspective “June” with Copywrite.
Deadringer, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is a damn fine cd if you’re into instrumental hip-hop and meticulous beat crafting. The only negative thing to say about Deadringer is that it doesn’t break incredible amounts of new ground. RJD2 infuses the album with some wonderful production flourishes, but the majority of the songs do little to blow you away with their sheer innovation. Deadringer has been widely compared to releases from DJ Shadow, and rightfully so. To be fair, pretty much every instrumental album of hip-hop influenced beats is going to have been influenced on some level by Shadow’s groundbreaking Endtroducing album, and it speaks volumes for RJD2 that nearly all of these comparisons shine upon him favorably; Lord knows that 90% of the albums that boast absurd taglines like “a mind-blowing blend of DJ Shadow and Barry White” never remotely approach the quality of the real thing. Nonetheless, in spite of the fact that they are excellent songs, it is hard to listen to the percussion on “The Proxy” and “Final Frontier” or the piano on “Good Times Roll Pt. 2” without hearing shades of Shadow.
Somehow, though, the unavoidable influence is easily forgivable; Deadringer is simply too much of a pleasure to listen to. RJD2 differs from Shadow in more ways than they sound alike. Deadringer is less somber (read as: pretentious), and seamlessly incorporates a wider variety of influences, ranging from hazy rare-groove to funk horns to obscure vocal soul samples to snippets of grungy metal, and almost everything in between. RJD2 effortlessly changes directions and adds unexpected elements to the mix that do more to perfect the songs than to muddle them up. Deadringer may not prove to have as much of an impact as Endtroducing, but such comparisons are unfair insofar as to say, quite safely, that Deadringer wasn’t constructed to “compete” with Shadow in the first place. Taken for what it is- a fine, highly musical, highly entertaining album of superbly crafted beats- Deadringer is one of the better pieces of music to come out this year and is a must-have for any self-professed beat head.
Reviewed by: Tony Van Groningen
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01