The passage of years since Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truthspeaker last released an album together as Latyrx makes even Deltron 3030’s hiatus seem like a lunch break. Sure, since Latyrx’s LP in 1997, the two Northern Californian rappers have released a total of eight solo albums and ten mix-tapes, but sixteen years seems even longer following an underground classic like The Album. Fearless, eclectic and revolutionary, The Album’s ventures into electronica and dense, sociopolitical lyrics ushered in a tradition of genre-bending San Francisco Bay-area alt-rap luminaries.
The Second Album comes sixteen years later–and why not? 2013 has witnessed multitudes of burgeoning social movements in all corners of the world. It has also witnessed turmoil, chaos and increasingly, violent dissent. Latyrx‘s progressive manifestos won’t fall upon deaf ears. Furthermore, 2013 has been the most exciting year in recent memory for hip-hop both mainstream and underground. Kendrick Lamar clowned everyone, Pusha T became a star, Drake didn’t make any new friends, Jay-Z explained his art collection for six hours, and Kanye gave us THE FIRST PIECE OF HONEST MEDIA IN YEARS–but behind the name-dropping, mic-dropping and rich-guy rap, Deltron 3030 came back, Detroit established itself as hip-hop’s most fertile region for creativity, Run the Jewels might be the year’s best album at ten tracks long, and Vic Mensa changed the mix-tape game forever. So, just for the hell of it, why doesn’t Latyrx come back?
Aptly named, The Second Album is but the latest plot-twist in a year full of them. By-in-large, Latyrx continues the work of The Album, an adventurous, genre-muddling release charged by progressive politics. But The Second Album doesn’t recycle the tropes and sonic landscapes of The Album so much as it reevaluates and updates its formula for 2013. For the most part, it’s an enjoyable, diverse record that prompts us to consider what hip-hop can do both rhetorically and musically.
Sometimes, Lateef and Lyrics Born take the beat as a mere suggestion rather than a rigid guideline. This is certainly the case on “Arrival”, The Second Album‘s first track, which explores the stump speech as a valid hip-hop form. Such creative decisions are not, as Rolling Stone says, “radically unusual” for Latyrx, but the song prefigures The Second Album’s tendencies towards spoken word and political activism. And while the duo’s concern with hip-hop’s capacity to uplift is a breath of fresh air, some of the album’s more overtly partisan songs are rather heavy-handed (“Reload”, “The Power of Rumor (Leonard is Lost)”). Both of these songs intend to create meaningful dialogue that questions institutional dogmas and power structures but the message can be overwhelmed by the density of Latyrx’s delivery and the chaos of their production. All this aside, “Deliberate Jibberish” is an “Alphabet Aerobics” or “Chemical Calisthenics”-like achievement, a staggering display of lyrical ability from Lateef which serves to remind us that yes, in fact, this is still a hip-hop record.
That isn’t always so patently clear–The Second Album features a baffling list of producers from a variety of musical backgrounds, from L.A.-via-Las Vegas electro DJs The Bangerz to Chris Funk from The Decemberists to the Radiohead-remixing AmpLive and vocal-looping extraordinaires tUnE-yArDs. For the most part, The Second Album benefits from its bold choices (although Forrest Day is a curious choice–“Exclamation Point” has a dark-and-empty-streets feel). Latryx‘s partnership with tUnE-yArDs result in two gorgeous songs, the huffing acapella and dissonant crescendos of “Deliberate Jibberish” and the sample-chopping, cascading “Watershed Moment” (which can be heard below). AmpLive’s appropriation of dub music on “It’s Time” and the pitch-perfect “Nebula’s Eye” with its drumline snare and psychedelic, Tame Impala-esque distorted guitar riffs provide two of the album’s most memorable moments.
There’s enough unlikely beauty here to warrant significant replay value. Sixteen years later, Latyrx is still pushing the envelope, but it remains to be seen if The Second Album will age as gracefully as their first one.