Experimental and instrumental hip-hop tends to have a hard time breaking through. Its most obvious potential audience – the hip-hop community – seems more attracted to the cult of personality that a rapper brings to the music, something that an instrumentalist has a hard time conjuring on his/her own. While the indie rock audience has embraced a few artists, most notably RJD2 and Prefuse 73, that heyday seems to have passed, leaving the forward-thinking producers in a tough bind. Undeterred, Thavius Beck offers a stunning collection of such music on his sophomore solo effort, Thru.
The preface above is largely meant to set up the stakes of this underdog story, which improves with the addition of such dramatic undertones. These are dramatic soundscapes, after all. While four of the tracks are collaborations with vocalists, including his lovely dismemberment and recombination of Mia Doi Todd on “Down,” the focus is on Beck’s solo constructions. While still operating in the realm of hip-hop, his adventurousness is duly apparent. He favors stuttering rhythms that keep you guessing over any solidification of a persistent groove -- just listening to “Under Pressure” encapsulates the nervous energy that permeates the album. While things can be smoothed out, like the Moroder-esque synths on “He’s Back,” there always seems to be something, usually the beat, that’s on the verge of breaking apart. This makes the tracks breathe in a substantial way, elevating Beck’s material over the typical backing track for a rapper.
In fact, on the few traditional pairings with rappers, like “Lyrical Gunplay” or “Dedicated to Difficult,” it’s obvious that MCs Saul Williams and 2Mex (respectively) are struggling to match wits with the music. They acquit themselves admirably enough, but possibly because the music is so non-traditional, they never arrive upon convincing hooks or great runs that show off their skills. The results are mixed at best. Beck either needs to get together with a highly skilled MC who will spend the time necessary to engender a true collaboration or else sharpen focus on the solo aspects, treating vocalists more in the fragmented way that he does Mia Doi Todd. Whatever path he chooses, the hip-hop community should start taking note.