Friday, February 7, 2014

The prolific Kool A.D. continues his loopy brilliance on "Not O.K."

I've never been much of a Guided By Voices fan, but I'm well aware of what it's like to be one, and having to struggle to sort through Robert Pollard's massive output.  Rapper Kool A.D. (real name Victor Vasquez) isn't quite on that level, but the former Das Racist member sure seems to have alot of material as of late.  (For those keeping score at home: he's put out 4 mixtapes in less than 2 years, and they all have 15 songs or more on them.)  He's a weird guy, and his style is such that he just tosses out whatever is going on in his head.  The result is often strange, indulgent, and scattered; but captivating nonetheless. So what if you have to sift through a few misfires when the moments that connect are so incredible?

Not O.K., the latest addition to his recent prolific streak, isn't any different in that regard.  In Das Racist, he and Heems were always those slacker geniuses of the rap world, the kind that never seemed like they were trying too hard, but still aced every test.  Now that he's on his own, Kool A.D. has fallen deeper into that well.  Here's the thing: Not O.K. is very dumb.  But it's also kind of brilliant.  That's the dichotomy he explores on his solo material, constantly blurring the lines between bewildering foofaraw and idiosyncratic genius.  In his hands, songs are an opportunity to ingest a bunch of rap tropes and spit out something uniquely his own.  Take a look at "Tiger Style," where he out-Lil B's Lil B; or the way he employs the "oops, I meant..." tick that Lil Wayne made popular in the mid-to-late 2000s.  He manages to be a scholar of rap, but never takes it too seriously.

But of course, there are those missteps that come with his freewheeling style.  On this mixtape he tries his hand behind the boards, producing the three instrumentals that appear, and they're easily the weak points, especially sitting next to production from Toro y Moi and Oh No.  They're short enough to be harmless -- the longest one clocks in at 1 minute and 24 seconds -- but two are placed close together near the end and are big momentum killers.  What's more deleterious are some of the truly awful guest verses that pop up.  If you want to know how difficult it is to pull off Kool A.D.'s style, take a look at the people who try to imitate it and fail.  Despite his great beat work, Amaze 88 just doesn't have the insouciant charm to nail A.D.'s smoked out ramblings, and Milo's cringeworthy awkwardness threatens to capsize "Pass the Milk."  On the other hand, there's no explanation for Alim, whose clumsy in a style all his own on "Insane Computer Raps."

Not all of the guest spots are bad though -- in fact, the two best songs have prominent feature verses.  The first one is "CNN," where Del the Funkee Homosapien and Lady Mecca meld with Kool A.D. like they were born to rap together; the other is "PLVYVHVT3," where Jaybee quietly kills it.  And for as much as he goofs off, when Vasquez does straighten up it's quite dazzling.  "Cuidado" sees him showing off his limber flow, adroitly switching between English and Spanish.  You'd think it'd be frustrating to only get glimpses of his full potential, but the best moments feel incredibly rewarding.

With 15 tracks totaling a slim 43 minutes, Not O.K. is a more streamlined affair when compared to his previous 20+ song releases.  But it's not just the length that evidences progress, this one also feels more singular in its vision, not just a grab bag of styles and tones.  I mourn the loss of Das Racist, who single-handedly renewed my enthusiasm for rap music back in 2010, but if we keep getting mixtapes like this -- and at the frequency with which he's been putting them out -- then I can't complain.  Not O.K. is a clear sign of growth from this eccentric, hard to nail down rapper.

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