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Themselves - CrownsDown

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Artist: Themselves

Album: CrownsDown

Label: Anticon

Review date: Oct. 16, 2009

Doseone, the rapping half of Themselves, has won respect for confronting basic assumptions about what hip hop is and can be. To his credit, he and his Anticon cohort have shown how hip hop can be melded to rock in ways that aren’t stodgy Rick Rubin iterations or Girl Talk kitsch, and have revealed that the sound’s seeming foundations – such as, ahem, rhyming on beat – can be chucked like loose topsoil. But although he deserves some praise for his efforts, Doseone has gotten by for too long on the mere fact that he’s challenging. Difficulty shouldn’t be a virtue in itself. And the new Themselves’s album, CrownsDown, is an opportunity to reconsider whether Doseone’s abstruseness is really something of merit.

CrownsDown is Themselves’s third record, but the first that the team of Doseone and Jel has released since 2002. Again, the duo pit gonzo against glitch – Doseone raps for minutes on end in a mishmash of bizarre characters and little structure, while Jel amps up the distortion on his jolted beats. Jel’s production is, despite the noisiness, fairly conventional – reset the equalizers, and you’d have something that sounds like today’s club tracks. (Check the Auto-Tune on “You Ain’t It.”) Doseone’s accelerated ramblings are another matter. Unyielding and unending, they fly in the face of the common expectation that a rapper be intelligible.

A Dusted review of a prior Dose One effort described one of his “great strengths” as “that, through his inimitable delivery, his attention to syllable placement and phonetics, and the sheer complexity of his rhymes, he thoroughly convinces the listener that there’s something going on in there.” Respectfully, this critic begs to differ. It is precisely his delivery, his complexity, his intense attention to the sounds and rhythm of his lyrics – in short, his obdurate formalism – that is Doseone’s greatest weakness. That his verbosity suggests that “something is going on” is really an indictment of the fact that there’s much less than the hail of words implies.

Take this rap on the song “Oversleeping”: “In this world, you never get what you’re owed / And I ain’t never took a thing I ain’t rightfully stoled / To meet ends, like friends and rent / The only things I regret / Is to what I’m in debt.” Paying your dues but failing to get your deserts – this isn’t complicated stuff. But Doseone, with his warp-speed phrasing, would like to convince us otherwise. Or consider this gibberish from “Roman Is as Roman Does”: “Either you is or you isn’t bright light / And that broad, darker the trite / And all those things that we must beef into the night / And so a soldier of the stereotype / Filling out a hollow with life / Are you abuse-less flesh mud on the mic / Or is it that you rappers always sound alike?” In lines like these, Doseone is somewhere between a puerile poet, obsessed with words’ power but reckless with their meaning, and a bamboozler, playing crowds with high-minded nonsense. One gets the sense that he either doesn’t care about his listeners or secretly spites them.

What’s most dispiriting about Doseone’s disdain for his audience is how it undermines a core value of the genre in which he participates. Hip hop is a democratic form of popular music. At its most basic level, it requires nothing more than a backing beat (a handclap will suffice), someone speaking, and, if necessary, a microphone. In its form and content, hip hop emphasizes the commonality between performers and listeners: DJs craft their beats from familiar songs and sources, and MCs rhyme in accessible terms about their lived experiences and unlived aspirations, subjects that their audience members share or can relate to. No doubt, there are all sorts of ways in which hip hop creates divisions and distributes power unfairly – to choose one obvious example, women are still second-class citizens – and the genre is probably too fantastical for its own good. But, these caveats aside, hip hop is an art form where inclusiveness is taken seriously.

Doseone, however, is an elitist who excludes others without the slightest compunction. When rapping, he consciously chooses to be obscure and privileges his lyrical construction to our listening comprehension. He is unwilling to extend a hand to the audience; we instead must do the work, carefully parsing and replaying, to reach out to him. Now, that’s not necessarily a problem – just as difficulty shouldn’t be the sole measure of Doseone’s success, it also shouldn’t be the measure of his failure. But if he’s going to dramatically reorient the dynamics between performer and observer and turn hip hop into his own private language, there’d better be a payoff, some lesson learned, some larger point proved.

Alas, that insight won’t be found on CrownsDown. Doseone’s rapping is thicketed to the point of impenetrability; whatever he wishes to convey gets lost in his internal rhymes. And the meanings to be found are rather ordinary. As compared to El-P or Busdriver, to name two of his hyper-talking peers, there is little irony, subversion or depth. All that’s demonstrated here is that inscrutability is a poor substitute for hip hop’s clarity. As is so often true, Doseone’s wealth of speech is no match for precision of words.

So, here’s a tip of the hat to Doseone for his single, incontrovertible redeeming quality: he’s unafraid push hip hop beyond its breaking point. Of course, that’s a bit like thanking a criminal for boldly showing us where right ends and wrong begins. True, we might be a bit wiser for listening to CrownsDown, but, as in witnessing a crime, whatever wisdom gained is far outweighed by the ills wrought.

By Ben Yaster

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