CunninLynguists – Dirty Acres

(This is a review of the new Cunninlynguists’ album Dirty Acres. It seems no one wants to listen to this band because of their name, but don’t let that stop you! I haven’t written a review in a while, but lemme know what you think.)

This is one of my most anticipated releases of the year, partially because I have to make most of the hype for myself cause I’m not seeing it much place else (probably because the name of the group scares people away). But when the retail version (sans annoying promo voiceovers) popped up on the filesharing circuit, I got an uncharacteristically intense giddy rush. The lush rhymes and vibes from Deacon The Villain, Natti and Kno’s conceptual A Piece of Strange made it my favourite hip hop album last year. Its follow-up continues on in a very familiar manner. On first impression, it starts quite good, gets slightly dull toward the middle and ends like a fucking monolith. And then it’s back to the beginning to find everything growing a bit more warm and lovable.

Dirty Acres starts the same way my favourite rap album of all time (Outkast’s ATLiens) ends with Big Rube’s rich bassy voice rapping languorously over delicate piano chords, though the subject has shifted from religion (a topic that would definitely feel very appropos on this disc) to black identity and the state of hip hop: “as long as we breathe, hip hop is gonna breathe with us. As long as we real, folk can’t help but feel us.” This intro provides a calm expanse for the triumphant explosion of ‘Valley of Death’ to rip up and fling into the air like confetti. From there the album continues on, with moments both upbeat and slow, and is consistently not afraid to be soulful, melodic and even emotional; usually without coming off as schmaltzy.

That accomplishment is in the hands of Kno, who provides production duties on all of the tracks and is to me the real hero of the album—or at least what gets me gobbling it up. His sound is quite distinctive. It is very lush and organic, rather like a jungle near Rio Di Janeiro might be, often layered with music that would sound at home behind the crooning of Barry White, and interspersed with plenty of soaring gospel voices and old soul samples. I’m seeing a lot of comments that this album is dark. Darker even than their previous album. Maybe I don’t share this interpretation because I already listen to plenty of trip hop and twisted, haunting electronica. To me the vibe I get from this disc is heat; not exactly a soothing warmth, but more the bright heavy sunshine of the summer, and maybe a bit like a conscientious and understanding friend in a dark place (like the hood, I suppose).

The rapping from Deacon and Natti is in fine form, though to me the album is all about Kno’s production. I don’t know enough to know who is who, but both rappers boast beautiful, deep and expressive voices, which isn’t at all a necessity for spittin’ flows, but certainly helps in the context of this music. The subject matter is generally not the bitches’n’bling of popular hip hop, nor does it follow the independant hiphop trend of pessimism and elaborate wordplay. The songs often touch on beauty and pain, religion and hope, most often by telling stories about characters struggling through various hardships. Perhaps due to their somewhat impressionistic nature, the stories often seem somewhat sensationalized, so when I hear “if you knew where my head is when I’m doing these records you’d never listen to my music again; I can’t let you see the things I dream” I can’t help but think that the dark and twisted things happening in the narrative are more a part of some parable than reality. That is not necessarily a negative criticism, though it might be, but the way the two weave their words together is impressively skilful.

As with most hip hop albums, there are several skits in between tracks. Thankfully, they are more about themes and less about random recorded conversations while the artists were high. They manage to be sonically satisfying and mostly contribute to the flow of the album rather than breaking it up. While they are more pleasing than most hip hop interludes, they could easily have lead into the tracks they set up more smoothly. The flow is injured because the brief skits can’t quite generate enough momentum to get over the blank spaces, and that problem might have been easily remedied. Somewhat related to the above quibble, a few of the real energetic tracks (like KKKY and Valley of Death) are cut off perhaps too abruptly.

While we’re discussing some shortcomings of the album, let’s talk about its biggest. The middle. There is a series of about four songs at the centre of the disc that get gradually more the same, and end up being too smooth and saccharine to the point of near boredom. My appreciation of this suite of songs is not helped by the fact that many of them deal with the rappers (usually guest spots) trying to suavely get sex with various ultra hot women—an all-too-common trope of hip hop which is thankfully absent from the rest of the album. I’ll admit that Devin the Dude’s guest spot on Wonderful is actually quite fine and really only guilty of setting the mould that makes the following seem a bit dull. The worst offender, though, is Yellow Lines, which, while boasting ultra-smooth soulful production, is the source of the albums most remarkable chorus: “Yeah. I put a spell on dem hoes, forgive me lord but I’m hell on dem hoes. Yeah. I put a spell on dem hoes, forgive me lord but I’m hell on dem hoes. Heyeah. I put a spell on dem hoes, forgive me lord but I’m hell on dem hoes. Yeah. I jus… I put a spell on dem hoes, forgive me lord but I’m hell on dem hoes.” I don’t think I need to explain what I find irritating about that one. Those two tracks are followed by a couple of very nice, positive jams, that are really well done, but maybe too subdued to keep me interested; nonetheless it’s still interesting to hear rapping about the simple joys of summer barbeques.

I do really, really like this album, though, and its real power reveals itself toward the end. After Summer’s Gone, Gun picks things back up a bit and gets us ready for the final four songs which are my favourites on the album. Dance for Me is a crooning, slow jam about a stripper, and it is utterly beautiful. Hearing both rappers caress the words they drop is a joy, and the production is perfect, featuring a wonderful, touching old sample that google won’t help me find. While the song is a heartstring-tugger and generally downbeat, the driving rhythm of words and beats keeps it constantly riveting and downright addictive. After that, Georgia is a soulful gospel-inflected lament for poverty and violence. Then Things I Dream throws us straight into that dark, desperate world, describing the violence and greed first-hand. Mexico ends the album on a wistful note as a man muses on goals and dreams and relationships. These four tracks perfectly illustrate how beautifully the production suits the subject matter on all these songs, and the general effect of that is a hip hop album that can be extremely affecting.

Despite my occasional qualms with the middle of the album, almost all the songs are excellent and extremely listenable; it’s easy to come back to them over and over. This is a quality product. So what makes this different from their last album? All-in-all it’s actually very similar (which is sure as hell not a bad thing). But they do make some changes; for example there are far fewer chipmunk samples, which is a definite improvement. It also seems more single-minded and more cohesive to these ears, a little smoother, but still leaves room for improvement. Is it a better album? I’ll need some more time to figure that out. Overall, this is a standout disc. If you want it in mathematics, I guess I’d call it 8.5 over 10.

There are 4 sample tracks on the band’s myspace page (including my favourite, Dance for Me)

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