Fortune seems to favor some more than others; RJD2 is not among the favored. He began the last decade as a rising star, only to have his reputation decline slowly, largely in part to pedestrian hip-hop collaborations and unsuccessful forays into meandering pop electronica. Adding insult to injury, RJD2 (a.k.a. RJ Krohn) gained some late-decade exposure through AMC’s acclaimed series Mad Men, but only after selling the publishing rights to the theme song, thereby giving up any future profits from it. Starting off this decade with his first new album in three years, it’s difficult not to notice how far Krohn’s star has fallen since his 2002 debut, Deadringer.
To his credit, RJD2 seems to have taken note of his missteps and is looking to regain some positive attention with The Colossus. Shifting back toward a more traditionally hip-hop-oriented sound, the record marks something of a retreat. While it isn’t entirely successful, certainly not living up to its grandiose title, the record still manages to be more enjoyable than its lackluster predecessor. It doesn’t win any points for originality or audacity, but it does succeed on its own modest terms.
“Games You Can Win,” a poppy collaboration with Kenna, fits in well within the debonair alternative R&B template set by Mark Ronson. Moreso than the vocal-based songs on this or any other RJD2 album, “Games You Can Win” actually sounds like an authentic crossover move. The Colossus’ other vocal tracks aren’t quite as successful. “Crumbs Off The Table” lacks a strong hook, but chugs along pleasantly. “Gypsy Caravan” and “Walk With Me” are fun, but too fey and hammy to make any emotional impact. Meanwhile, “A Son’s Cycle” continues RJ’s longstanding tradition of partnering up with totally mediocre emcees. All of these songs are superior, however, to “The Glow,” which sounds more than anything like a Grand Theft Auto AOR-parody.
The instrumental tracks aren’t any more consistent. With less of a reliance on sampling than on his first two records, they too often sound like studio-borne filler. The live instrumentation is smooth enough, approximating a jazzy, Steely Dan-ish flair, but it never escapes feelings of inauthenticity. Despite occasional callbacks to his debut, RJD2 draws more heavily from Since We Last Spoke’s rockist palette: “Let There Be Horns” is funky enough to be pleasantly reminiscent of Deadringer standout “The Horror”; the Jock Jam-y “Small Plans” somehow manages to be simultaneously rousing and understated (it’s one of the only songs here to prominently feature any overt turntablism); and “Giant Squid” sounds like it could have been culled from Since We Last Spoke’s recording sessions, but lacks the same sense of tension or urgency.
These shortcomings emphasize Krohn’s precarious position within today’s musical landscape. In the eight years since Deadringer was released, hip-hop has hybridized to the point where there is little room for traditionalism, at least of the indie-rap variety. Def Jux, RJD2’s former home, has fallen by the wayside, and the most exciting artists in the field are working with a more Anglophonic, dubstep-oriented sound. Artists like Flying Lotus and Dam-Funk are pushing the boundaries of hip-hop composition, melding recognizable stylistic standards with more progressive and adventurous arrangements. Nevertheless, RJD2 is still in a class of his own, and The Colossus is charming enough. Krohn might have temporarily given up on expanding his stylistic horizons, but he sounds comfortable again, certainly a small step taken toward a more fortunate future.