The idea of Themselves crafting an archetypal rap album in the classic mold is a little absurd. The group’s debut, Them, made a pointed effort to push the boundaries of hip-hop to their breaking points, while their follow-up, The No Music, routinely subverted or undermined the impulse toward increased accessibility, hinted at on songs like “Good People Check.” In many ways, CrownsDown continues the route indicated by that track, focusing unabashedly on streamlined, aggressive beats and finding Doseone turning his trademark lyrical abstraction onto hip-hop’s classic concern: itself.
Throughout the record, Themselves take the latent fury over the state of rap found in the comparatively laconic The No Music and bring it to the fore, creating a biting and relentless statement of purpose. It kicks off, appropriately, with “Back II Burn,” perhaps the most straightforward track of their career, Dose snarling “Guess who’s back” over sturdy synth hits and stomping, thunderous percussion. Of course, accessibility and directness are relative terms here: this is still the sort of album for which “In the battle for names/ You become soup/ ’Cept you don’t own yours” is a straightforward diss.
However, the challenge here is as much about discerning exactly what Dose is furiously spitting as it is interpreting it; his delivery is so absurdly rapid-fire that it becomes nearly impossible to follow. In terms of sheer technical prowess, Dose routinely outdoes himself here, cramming his lines full of odd slant rhymes and sudden pauses, and adopting a wide range of vocal styles, from his trademark nasal chatter to a throaty growl, all delivered at such a breakneck pace that the main appeal of his lines is in the virtuosity with which they are delivered. Jel’s backing solidly reinforces Dose’s vocals, dancing nimbly around or skittering along with them, their density and complexity offering Dose the opportunity to show off by simply keeping up.
However, over the course of the album, this constant assault of rapid-fire talent risks becoming routine, with tracks losing definition and bleeding into one another in a sludge of dense production. The mid-album respite offered by “You Ain’t It,” with its charming Auto-Tuned chorus from paraplegic Subtle band member Dax Pierson, offsets Dose’s still incessant vocals, providing much-needed changes of pace. Even if its lyrical content still involves putting people in their place, the congeniality of the delivery offers a refreshing variation on the diss track — something the album could use more of.
In some ways, the primacy of put-downs and self-aggrandizing over more obtuse concerns creates an environment in which intelligibility isn’t as important as intensity. Pick any one line out of the glut of verbiage and it becomes immediately clear that “Oversleeping” is an attack on lazy rappers or that “Skinning the Drum” is about upping the DJ, while the high-speed dexterity of Dose’s delivery offers an immediate affirmation of the skills he claims to have. This focus on comparative simplicity and directness makes for some undeniable gut-level pleasures, but there’s also a sense that, in embracing their newfound aggression, Themselves have sacrificed some of the expressiveness characteristic of the most effective of works of the anticon. collective. Themselves were always the least overtly emotive of Dose’s myriad projects, but their best work used the ambiguity of their lyrical and production tendencies to craft songs with an excitingly unstable relationship with the notion of rap itself.
At its best, the new record takes advantage of Dose’s stylistic range and crafts inter-song relations between various voices, a sort of rap-gang of one. But Dose’s wordplay and lyrical concerns are often too easily reduced to clear meanings. Still, there’s something promising in the unprecedented level of confidence here, suggesting that, despite their strange position as elder statesmen of left-field rap, Themselves are still hungry and eager to prove themselves. CrownsDown certainly achieves its obvious intent, its impeccable production, and untouchable vocal dexterity, firmly reestablishing the group as a definite talent.
1. Back II Burn
3. The Mark
4. Gangster of Disbelief
6. You Ain't It
7. Roman Is as Roman Does
8. Skinning the Drum
9. Deadcatclear II
10. Gold Teeth Will Roll