The Cunninlynguists producer/sometimes emcee delivers his solo debut, but although the production is groundbreaking, do the rhymes totally measure up?
Truth be told, the Cunninlynguists are probably one of the big reasons die-hard fans of crate digging and sample-based beatmaking have stayed sane during the last decade. As RJD2 began shifting his attention to Indie Rock guitar noodling and after DJ Shadow dabbled in Hyphy and disappeared, the Kentucky-based trio have upped the aesthetic ante with each release while continuing to find inspiration inside the verse-chorus-verse box. Largely thanks to producer and sometime-emcee Kno, the group has achieved a synchronicity with a backdrop of beats that are like that guy at the party who pulls people into his orbit with the right mix of raw charisma only to turn introspective bordering on sinister a few drinks later. While occupying a different musical space, Kno’s work has risen to the level of producers like Alchemist, Hi-Tek and DJ Muggs where it can hold its own in the form of an album featured atop a bed of rhymes rather than vice-versa..
Death is Silent marks Kno’s first solo effort of this sort and while it lyrically falters at times it also manages to set a new standard for what can still be called a “classic” approach to Hip Hop production.
Although tones change and styles morph, Southern Hip Hop’s evolution as a whole exhibits a fluidity that is in many ways similar to the trajectory music out of the UK has taken during the last 30 years. This makes the production on Death is Silent that much more poignant as Kno chose to go across the Atlantic rather than across the Mississppi when it came to mining sounds for one of the year’s strongest collection of beats. There’s that spaciness and beautifully frigid quality to certain kinds of music that only the Brits seem to nail. The advantage to sample based Hip Hop is that an American producer like Kno can pull from influences that are closer to The Village Green Preservation Society and Substance than Joe Tex or ESG. Kno is probably the first producer to ever make beats sound Mod. From the Psychedelic "Graveyard" and "Silent" to "Rhythm of The Rain" and "Spread Your Wings" which would sound at home being spun at Manchester's Haçienda club, Kno manages to creating a sound-scape that simultaneously sounds foreign and organic.
But where Hip Hop production affords an artist the freedom tomake this move, the resulting album can be a double edge sword. One of the things an album like Death is Silent makes music fans consider is how producers may be unnecessarily wed to the idea of crafting a solo album that still ultimately serves as a windup so a group of emcees can do their thing. Many of Kno’s compositions on this album are straight-up cinematic, more welcoming to the image of Robert DeNiro placing his gun on a kitchen counter overlooking the beach in Heat than an actual emcee rhyming about guns, the beach or the heat. One such track is "They Told Me" which does Moby better than Moby does Moby.
To be fair, the musicianship shown on Death Is Silent rises to such a level that even the most dexterous emcees would be upstaged by the height of the album’s arrangements. That said, Kno’s prowess as a rhymer doesn’t help make the record’s lyrical landing any less rocky. For those that weren’t left satisfied by the recent amount of comedy Eminem-mined on subjects that even the slowest morning Zoo radio show abandoned in '99, the rogue’s gallery of dated references on Death Is Silent will definitely do the trick. Why lose sleep wondering when your rhymes will date themselves when you can just namedrop Ty Palin, Rod Blagoyevich or Joran Vandersloot? There are also consistency issues to the rhymes on Death is Silent that are much more detrimental than a little humor past its expiration date. Listening to Kno call himself the "talcum Malcolm" and discuss rowing a woman's little man in a boat, it’s often hard to believe that the voice and the track’s producer are one and the same.
RZA, at his height, was able to craft beats that flawlessly complemented the personalities on his tracks. This is why “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” received one beat and “Shadowboxin’” another. The unfortunate part is that the other members of the Cunninlynguists seem more attuned to the thematic nuances of Kno’s production than Kno himself. This is highlighted even more so on Death is Silent, where Kno’s lyrical half can’t seem come to grips with the depth he’s created in the lab. With rhymes and haunting production locked airtight time and time again on older Cunninlynguist's tracks like “What’ll You Do,” the chasm on Kno’s solo album is all the more glaring. Eerie instrumentation with plaintive female vocals woven seamlessly throughout receive the brunt of Kno’s lyrical strike outs on Death is Silent, thus turning tracks like "La Petite Mort" into something akin to a Bloodhound Gang / Portishead collaboration. The reason both those groups - and to an even greater extent The Cunninlynguists - have been successful is that they understand what type of paint looks best on what canvas.
It’s usually not a good sign if while listening to a Hip Hop beat the first time around you’re already trying to deconstruct how it was made. The producer should’ve created something visceral enough where the last thing on the listener’s mind should be trying to figure out how something was time-stretched or chopped. Making the listener forget that thing called sampling even exists is where Kno consistently proves himself first rate. The respect he has for beat-making by his sample arsenal in the shadows, is a rarity in especially in today's Internet age. For a producer that knows exactly what things moves an audience and how it’s best to keep those secrets hidden, his decision to handle so many of his own rhymes is all the more puzzling. However, there are always those days when a pitcher steps up to bat and hits a home run. So let producers rhyme and let emcees try their hand at the MPC. Leave the talk of designated hitters to the major leagues.