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Seven months after the release of a mixtape titled The Free Houdini, Themselves emerged from the studio with a program of completely new material. For inspiration, the duo (Doseone and Jel) went back to their crates and analyzed some of their favorite hip-hop records from the 1980s and 1990s -- material by artists like Gang Starr, Public Enemy, Saafire, and Ultramagnetic MC's -- and figured out what it was about those records that made them special. Then they took the elements they had isolated and created their own variations on those venerable themes. The result is an album that includes unique and up-to-the-minute interpretations of classic rap themes: warnings to their rivals and would-be style-jackers; shout-outs and tributes to admired colleagues; imprecations against bootleggers and CD-burners; etc. While influences are audible to some degree, there really is no other hip-hop duo that sounds anything like Themselves, for better or for worse. At their best (check "The Mark" and "Oversleeping," for example), they blend sharp and complex beats with an almost rockish delivery that occasionally evokes an early and extra-funky Bad Brains. At their worst (the weirdly square and uncompelling "Back II Burn," the ill-advisedly triple-metered "Daxstrong") they at least get points for experimenting. Not everything on Crownsdown succeeds beautifully, but everything is at least worth hearing.

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