Saturday, March 25, 2006

Review: Jel / Soft Money (Anticon)

The Sunday South China Morning Post, March 25, 2006

“Don’t buy this product, you don’t need it,” is a curious way to start rapping on your solo debut album. As Soft Money opens with To Buy a Car, Jel, nee Jeffrey Logan, is soberly imagining the click-y, breakbeat advertising jingle he’d write for a fleet of “street legal war vehicles.” But he’s also winking at the doting avant garde hip hop heads who just purchased—or more likely downloaded—his album.

The Chicago-born producer/MC doesn’t need such slogans to prove his anti-corporate mettle. As one of the founding members of hip hop’s best known underground collective, the Oakland, Calif.-based Anticon, he shaped the intricate musical bedrock for the lyrical acrobatics of groups like Themselves and Deep Puddle Dynamics. Fortunately, after the early proselytizing on that first track, Jel jumps off his soap box to grab a drink and slide back behind his old samplers to kick off this chill-out session.

What pretensions he may betray in his self-righteous lyrics—on a later track the war on terror becomes his easy target—he often abandons in an unusually accessible hip hop orchestration. The quick beat changes, strange syncopations, blurred samples and sheer noise that have lately become the heavy grist of “nerd rap” millers like Prefuse 73 are all but absent; in their place are spacious beats, cinematic cellos, twinkling Rhodes pianos and processed vocal snatches that make tracks like No Solution and Nice Last sound like the soundtrack to a gritty sci-fi movie, or to a pre-dawn repose after a night at the club.

It’s a testament to Jel’s talent as a producer that these songs aren’t merely background music. On top of his facility with samples and beats, Jel proves he’s more than capable of mixing in hip-hop’s most exciting ingredient: collaboration. To wit, All Around, relying on the ethereal vocals of electronica chartreuse Jessie Bohm, is the album’s hypnotic pop pinnacle.

Though Jel’s worn critique of the war on terror threatens to ruin the party on Soft Money, Dry Bones, rapper Wise Intelligent’s take on a corporate accession to war machines on WMD is as good music as it is protest. Such things don’t always go well together, but like many moments on the rest of the album—a mixture of dark electronics, pop, and mostly lyric-less hip hop—sometimes they can, well, gel.