blame Kanye West and his unprecedented success in climbing out from behind the boards to become America’s ten-times platinum darling, Time magazine cover boy and multiple Grammy Award winner. All this in spite of a torpid flow and mealy-mouthed voice stuck somewhere between Puffy and Ma$e. Now, Scott Storch, for instance, has deluded himself into thinking he can rap, so that he and the similarly vocally-challenged Timbaland can trade diss records with the ease of one-armed men fighting a duel over a maiden they’ve long since forgotten. Hell, even the Alchemist is about to issue his first solo record, re-starting a rap career dormant since the former Whooligan rode the Soul Assassin Tour Bus in 1993. In Hollywood, every actor wants to direct. In the music biz, every director wants to act.
Of course, it’s not entirely fair to compare RJ to those guys. For one, those hip-hop producers stuck to hip-hop, while his The Third Hand is self-professedly a “pop record.” But the song remains the same in that it represents a sharp turn artistically, as the one-time heir to DJ Shadow’s throne is now bucking for a starring role after two records of gladly (and successfully) ceding the attention.
Deadringer, RJD2’s 2001 proper debut enlisted proficient MCs like Copywrite and Blueprint to spit over dusty breakbeats and ghostly samples, evoking a complex swath of emotion. A lot of critics described it as the sequel to Endtroducing… that Shadow never made. And in many ways, they were right. Deadringer’s success built steam with a grain of salt when salt was one of the few things its commercial-ready tracks weren’t used to hawk—“Ghostwriter” alone ended up in ads for the Washington State Lottery, Wells Fargo Financial Services, and Saturn (not to mention its appearance in the film Wimbledon. Presumably, Kirsten Dunst wears a Def Jux Baby Tee).
To his credit, RJD2 could’ve tried to replicate Deadringer for the rest of his career and done pretty well. But with 2004’s Since We Last Spoke, the mercurial beatmaker took a hard turn from his hip-hop past, evolving to encompass everything from metal and ’80s R&B to Tropicalia. There were no guest MCs and vocalists were kept to a minimum, but RJD2 himself sang on the break-up lament “Making Days Longer.”
In hindsight, “Making Days Longer” was indeed the jump-off to The Third Hand, where RJ gets behind the mic on the majority of tracks. A noble idea in theory, but problematic when you begin to ask yourself why RJ started behind the boards in the first place. It’d be overly critical to say the man can’t carry a tune, but it wouldn’t be to point out that his limited range makes Justin Timberlake look like Marvin Gaye. Wisely, he never tries to sing outside of his capabilities, but these vocal shortcomings seem evident throughout, bringing to mind a question hanging albatross-like over the album: would it have been so bad to take the Psyence Fiction route?
Indeed, The Third Hand desperately cries out for all-star vocalists to sing and rap over RJ’s continually impressive sonic backdrops. Kool G Rap spittin’ over the twinkling keyboards and cold-hearted synths of “Get It” would’ve been monstrous. Get Thom Yorke to wail his banshee-falsetto over “Have Mercy” and we might have gotten the funkiest track of his career. RJ’s vocals aren’t terrible—they’re just mediocre. But the lyrics are similarly bland too: corny love songs, ham-handed lines like “I want to give you the full regalia” or “she can get plump off a beer and meatloaf.” All too often it feels like Postal Service-lite, a humor-less Hot Chip, or an infinitely less emotionally resonant Junior Boys. Coffee-shop laptop-pop stripped of soul and grit. It’s the sort of record you’d expect Starbucks to beg to get their grubby java-stained paws on and immediately file it near the latest from Maroon 5.
The Third Hand’s successes come on its all-too-few, unsurprisingly gorgeous instrumentals, or the occasions when RJ keeps his vocal contributions to a minimum. “Work It Out” finds the former Def Jukie chopping and layering his vocals to create a thick band of blue-eyed soul harmony that sounds like the long-lost electronic album that Hall and Oates never recorded. The stoned gauze of “Paper Bubbles” serves as a nice respite towards the end.
Of course, artists need to evolve. Making the same album over and over again satisfies no one. But with The Third Hand, RJD2 has made an record that simply doesn’t play to his strengths. Blessed with awe-inspiring DJ skills and a brilliant ear for contorting obscure vocal samples and creating seamless found-art originals, RJ has ignored the very talents that got him noticed in the first place. His latest album might not be the twin disasters of Scott Storch and Timbaland trying to rap, but it won’t land him on the cover of Time either. Truth is, The Third Hand could’ve used a few more helping hands along the way.