Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Review: BlakRoc

BlakRoc is a Hip-Hop Rock project featuring blues-rock duo The Black Keys and several prominent members of the Hip-Hop community including Mos Def, RZA, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Raekwon and even ODB (RIP). The project as a whole doesn't seem like a tremendous stretch as far as Rap/Rock collaborations go, and if the lead single "Ain't Nothin' Like You (Hoochie Coo)" was any indication, the venture promised to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, rather than use the circumstances to crank up the guitars and the wordplay, everyone involved sounds largely muzzled.

Firstly, gone are the face-melting guitar riffs Black Keys fans have come to expect. Most of the guitar parts are strangely drowned out and feel like an afterthought. I suppose this should be expected on an album where they guitars/drums are simply there to hold a beat, but I expected The Black Keys to be a bit more adventurous in this context. They sound sound positively reserved and sheepish.

Secondly, maybe I've been listening to too much Lil' Wayne (probably), but the hip-hop contingent at work here feels stifled. The burbling beats of The Black Keys force them to deliver their lines with a slow, bluesy cadence that makes the whole thing feel casual and tired. It's sad when the most confident, memorable verse on the first half of the album comes from ODB, since he recorded his contribution years ago. I'm not sure if they intended for the album to lean towards a lounge-style atmosphere, but everyone feels a little bit out of their element here. The subject matter supports this theory, as it borrows heavily from traditional blues fare (failed love and hard times).

The album works best on songs like Ain't Nothin' Like You and What You Do To Me, when it lets Auerbach's smokey voice to carry some of the vocal load, allowing the rappers to rhyme over stripped down arrangements and at the pace they are used to. It's also no coincidence that most of the strongest songs feature Nicole Wray's pitch-perfect blues voice, as she admirably bridges the gap between the two genres.  

Maybe the whole thing would have worked better if older brass-knuckle Black Keys tracks were used and the hip-hop artists were forced to keep pace and match the intensity. Or maybe it would have worked better if The Black Keys made a reverse mixtape and generated blistering new riffs for popular rap songs. Instead, it sounds like Blues and Hip-hop for dummies from artists who are far from it.

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