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Ultramagnetic MCs - The Best Kept Secret

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Artist: Ultramagnetic MCs

Album: The Best Kept Secret

Label: Dmaft/Oglio

Review date: Feb. 23, 2007

In the beginning, circa the classic 1988 Critical Beatdown LP from Ultramagnetic MCs, Kool Keith had not yet developed the aura of weirdness that now enshrouds everything he does. He was a tight MC making his name, without claiming this or that trend, during one of the most volatile stages in hip hop’s evolution. Not long after that, things got strange. He left Ultramag and moved to California, where he tuned out the NYC tastemakers and started bumping E-40. He developed a surreal, cryptic vocabulary, obsessions with sci-fi and porno, and a serious case of paranoia. Last year, when a no-name record label took a bunch of his vocal tracks and resurrected his Dr. Octagon character without his oversight, things had gotten so bizarre that it was easy to forget what a crucial influence he was, back when. Keith’s darkly comedic sensibility, inventive punchlines and host of alternate personae suggested new ways of “keeping it real.”

It’s good to have him back, at least for a while.

Many will look for holes in The Best Kept Secret, to write it off as a cash-in or to speculate on some strange corruption in its creation. (Where is TR Love, anyway? He’s in the cover photo, but doesn’t seem to do anything. And how did fucking Oglio end up involved with this?) But it really is, by all available accounts and by the tangible audio evidence, what it was supposed to be. It’s the sound of a complex icon taking a break to goof off and rock rhymes with his old clique. It’s the sound of his old buddy taking a friendly cue and cutting up a little. It’s not a major advancement, nor is it a self-conscious “return to form.” It doesn’t sound self-conscious at all. The beats are both richly inventive and defiantly basic, neither souped-up nor slapped together. It has the warmth that reunion albums can have if the participants forgot about the money, forgot about recapturing the magic, and had some fun.

While Keith doesn’t neglect the fever-dream imagery (check the “10 million people in tuxedos” on “Plaques”) or fetishistic sexuality (“Underwear Pissy”) that’s defined him of late, he seems most at home on the obtuse dis tracks (“Super Spellbound”), hometown anthems (the no-shit first single “Mechanism Nice”) and semi-retro party cuts (“Late Nite Rumble,” “Party Started”). By contrast, his mournful, emphatic foil Ced-Gee is agonizingly hilarious on the ridiculous sex jam “Porno Star Part 2” (“Mr. Magic Shan / Yes I can can / Yes I can can / Make girls do handstands…” Maybe you have to hear him do it.) On almost every song, the two very different rappers, despite their very different career arcs, play off each other like old confidants.

Thus, the Best Kept Secret may be one of the year’s least confusing hip-hop pleasure… at least until it turns out that Ced-Gee is a Scientologist, Kool Keith hasn’t been seen in six months, and the whole thing was bankrolled by shape-shifting otters.

By Emerson Dameron

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