Since We Last Spoke

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Instrumental hip-hop can be a tough way to succeed, financially or artistically. The commercial world puts a low price on non-superstar productions and, for independent rap, the specter of DJ Shadow towers over all who come after him. Though it was overhyped, the full debut of Rjd2 in 2002 (Dead Ringer) illustrated there was additional ground left to plow. Unlike the dozens of Shadow imitators, Rjd2 isn't simply a resurrector of unjustly forgotten wax. He's a virtuoso on the sampler who recognizes that what's important isn't the beats, but what you do with them. To that he adds an implicit awareness of how to pace the songs on his albums for maximum effect. (It certainly doesn't hurt that, around that time, late-'70s rock and urban, his favorite genres to mine for samples, were closer to becoming cool than they had ever been before.) None of these traits were forgotten during Rjd2's journey to success, and his second production album refines the approach still further. With only a few exceptions, though, Since We Last Spoke makes the moody Dead Ringer sound like a piece of flag-waving exuberance; instead of the occasional up-tempo track, it's brooding and mellow throughout the record -- very nearly a rap singer/songwriter record. Three tracks in a row ("Exotic Talk," "1976," "Ring Finger") are sludge rock jams with just a few beats cut out and a few extras (like a talkbox or horn section) pasted on. Surely 50 Cent has nothing to worry about, but Rjd2 knows what he's doing and all of these songs have a way of worming inside your head until you can't wait for the next one. You've got to hand it to any producer who's able to succeed despite covering (and contributing the vocals for) one of the more mawkish tunes of Labi Siffre (who's revered by hip-hop artists for creating the classic "My Name Is..." and "Streets Is Watching" riffs, but who also functioned as a gay Al Stewart during the '70s). It's a left turn for one of the most promising producers in alt-rap, but it could lead to a better place down the road.

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