You say The Black Keys have a new album? I’m in. And you say that’s a rap album? No lie, but hesitancy crept up on me in the worst way possible. It may have been the fear that rap-rock albums are either very good (e.g. Aerosmith and Run DMC, Linkin Park and Jay-Z) or just plain bad (Kid Rock or Kid Rock). It may have been the horror that could have resulted if it were the Black Keys playing a beat for rappers or the rappers rhyming over some staple blues rock beat. Regardless, the play button was almost never pushed. Thankfully, the resulting album, a 11-track effort titled Blakroc, is simply incredible.
Here’s the interesting thing about the rappers they chose: Not huge names; sure, Ludacris appears on one and Mos Def and RZA appear on a couple, but guys like NOE, Jim Jones, and Billy Danze make up most of the tracks (plus the gorgeous tones of Nicole Wray). They do, however, use the big names in grandiose fashion. A song like “Ain’t Nothing Like You” has Mos Def singing, which takes him out of his comfort zone we’ve built up for him. They even get RZA to pull back from his normal delivery style on “Telling Me Things” and let him do a bit of “singing.” The result is almost indescribable and to hear his thick Brooklyn accent lay it down smooth behind this big sonic explosion is a gleeful moment for any fan regardless of their stance on the marriage of rap and rock. The intro track “Coochie” is this heavy country ditty that spins into Led Zeppelin territory, complete with a “big guitar” sound. It’s also a wonderful pairing of the more “absurd” lyricists. Luda’s southern drawl and ODB’s drunken berzerker style together make a song epic enough to sound like they’d been alongside one another for years.
Other than the Keys themselves, Jones and Wray are the standouts of this entire album. Wray is a singer who has had one solo album, and even that was almost 12 years ago. She is this unbelievably dynamic musical goddess. “Hope You’re Happy” is a G-D explosion led by Wray. Her voice is so fierce and funktacular throughout the album and with a range that is incredible. Whether it’s being very heart broken and lonely (“Hope You’re Happy”) or acting like a diva with a chip on her shoulder (“What You Do To Me”), she always comes out on top, which only insists she’s about due for a new album ASAP. Though much of this success is due in part to the Keys’ decisions.
“Why Can’t I Forget Him” is an interesting example of making concessions. The band’s backing track moves toward a mid-’90s neo soul vibe without losing any of their original kind of dark rock and swagger. But necking out Wray for album MVP has to be Jones. If you’d asked me about Jim Jones before this album, I would’ve told you he was popular and talented, but nothing more than a faceless Dipset member who could occasionally snag a hit. But in “Aint Nothing Like You”, Jones is the man who has to push the song along in this very Revolver-esque blues boogie. And he does a great job being kicked away from the beats he’s used to and works well with a simplistic style that is less braggadocios and more of a gravel-voiced storyteller.
“Dollaz and Sense” is a great move where the song does its best to keep the work of Black Keys in line with their previous rock while making a beat that is reminiscent of some old Wu Tang track that sounds like it’s stomping through Bed-Stuy. However, “On The Vista” is the best example of a synthesis of the two factions. Mos Def is a frantic spoken word poet while the band plays this mid-tempo old dirty jazz club beat that’s heavy on some stand up bass. And speaking of jazz, Raekwon on “Stay Off The Fucking Flowers” is a journey through the haunted history of jazz music while he kicks it like he’s the ghost in your bad acid trip. Of course, you’ve got to love the band when they’re right in their wheel well. “What You Do To Me” is like some slowed down ’60s blues jam that wonderfully melds some old school Al Green-esque chorus calls and Wray’s best Temptations impression and this really modern rhyme set-up by Jones and Danze. While Jones does his best to keep it cool and confident, Danze explodes like lightning in a bottle.
Blakroc is so breathtaking because it takes two very different sets of sounds and creates something cyclical that enhances all parties involved. Not to mention, the album brought to light talent that had previously been unable to flourish properly. For once, being oh-so wrong felt oh-so wonderful.