Media Review - Kool Keith, Diesel Truckers
I picked up the new Kool Keith album Diesel Truckers the other day with some trepidation. I'd skipped Keith's last project, Thee Undatakerz, released just a few months ago, for a few reasons, not the least of which is the poor quality control he's demonstrated lately. Keith releases a lot of material under various pseudonyms and with various collaborators, and I've been dissatisfied with most of the stuff he's done since Masters of Illusion, a collaboration with KutMasta Kurt released in 1999. That year also brought the excellent Dr. Dooom album, First Come, First Served, as well as the occasionally interesting Black Elvis/Lost in Space project. The latter is about the closest Keith has ever come to a crossover attempt, although it's not "street" enough to satisfy the demands of commercial rap. The weird collection of themes (Keith as rock superstar/science fiction figure/corporate mogul) was highly entertaining and lyrically fertile, but it was also a little dull musically.
With Kurt back in the fold after a few years apart, Diesel Truckers is a stronger effort than he's done since Black Elvis, and although the title concept is indifferently developed (there's more of that in one track on Masters of Illusion than in this whole album) it does take Keith away from the relentless description of his sexual preferences and scorn for rap and the music industry that characterized his Matthew and Spankmaster releases (like I said he releases a lot of stuff; if that's not enough, check out last year's The Lost Masters CD for outtakes of these albums. On second thought, don't.)
Several tracks on Diesel Truckers help justify the purchase, unless you've completely overloaded on Keith's oddball lyrics and complex, anarchic rhythms. "The Orchestrators" is standard, if high quality, Keith, while "Break You Off" sounds like a throwback to Sex Style, with some of the same references. He mixes it up some with Southern-style beats and drawl on "Takin' it Back," "MANE" and "I Drop Money," and adopts some of the laid-back flow of 50 Cent on "Can I Buy You a Drink?" much as he mimicked Jay-Z on Black Elvis' "Master of the Game." Although I'd prefer to hear more of the groundbreaking overflow rhyming so prevalent on the Dooom album, the fact that Keith can switch up his flow so easily is still impressive. Still, much of Diesel Truckers sounds like retread, rather than new territory for Keith, especially stuff like "The Legendary" and "Bamboozled" (featuring guest appearances by past collaborators Marc Live and Jacky Jasper.)
Black Elvis continues to haunt Keith at least as much as his underground sensation Dr. Octagon persona, if Diesel Truckers is any indication. I, for one, find the Octagon album overrated; it's not bad as a whole and has several excellent tracks ("Earth People," "Blue Flowers," and "Wild and Crazy" are particular standouts,) but nothing better than some of the the stuff on Automator's A Much Better Tomorrow LP, recorded around the same time. Although Keith rejected the acclaim heaped on Octagon (killing him off on the first track of the Dooom album,) he appears to think that the critical and commercial attention garnered by Outkast, especially Andre, is rightfully his. On "Mental Side Effects" he takes a few moments to call out "Benjamin" for copping his Black Elvis style and other career moves. Now, it should be noted that Keith thinks basically everybody has ripped him off (in the liner notes to Matthew he lists artists who haven't yet, which is a pretty manageable list) so it's hard to take very seriously. The whole thing seems like a paranoid fantasy off of another Keith project, the 2002 album Game. Besides, if Keith thinks he's the first person to delve into space age funk imagery, he's gotta be kidding. Outkast, for instance, were explicit about the heavy Parliament influence on their funky sci-fi ATLiens album from 1996, the same year Keith was doing Octagon.
One potential embarrassment on Diesel Truckers is how much Motion Man brings to the proceedings in his guest appearance on "Serve 'em a Sentence." Keith seems to be working a bit above his level on the rest of the album, and Motion nearly waxes Keith on his own track. Motion Man is like the anti-Keith; rather than spreading himself thin over legions of releases with inconsistent quality, he's dropped excellent performances sparingly over the years. His Clearing the Field is a certifiable classic, and his contributions to Master of Illusion nearly made the record.
Overall, Diesel Truckers isn't a bad album, even if you've already got a few Keith albums on hand. Is it a major step forward for Keith? No, and I'm tempted to say there might not be another major release in Keith, but you never really know with Keith. I was skeptical when I read word that this album was a "return to form," since that often means that an artist (in music, fiction, film, etc.) has finally consented to return to a subject and/or form that fans expect and feel comfortable with after a period of more interesting, idiosyncratic work, but in Keith's case the idiosyncrasies were wearing thin.