The first Dilated Peoples album in eight years wears a title suited for a perfect simile; Directors of Photography is like an old picture. It may be a tangible piece of media that exists on today’s Earth, but it is distinctly of a time that has passed. The years have withered the corners of the photograph and changed the physical world within which it exists, but the spirit of its subjects is still perfectly preserved within its boundaries: that’s because this record grips the roots of Dilated Peoples so tightly it will give rap veterans flashbacks to The Platform.
The beats are the first sign that the rules of Old-School Underground still reign supreme in this court. The instrumentals repeat a set of bars for as long as the MCs need to say their piece, then step aside and allow a vocal sample to carry the listener to the next track. The caring touch of Evidence and DJ Babu can be felt in every immaculately detailed loop, from the chilly ring of “Good As Gone” to the oppressive atmosphere of “Directors.” In a nod to days gone by, The Alchemist drops in to lend his production to “Cut My Teeth” and “L.A. River Drive,” both of which embody the producer so quintessentially the average fan will be able to recognize their creator without a glance at the credits.
When it comes to vocals, Rakaa, Evidence, and their featured companions all received the memo well in advance; calm, contemplative verses take precedence. From the very beginning, they championed carefully constructed rhymes packed to the brim with multisyllabic technique, and that remains as refreshing here as it ever was. The photography theme presented by the name, cover, and track titles is carried tentatively throughout, with vocal samples doing a bulk of the workload when it comes to maintaining the concept. For the most part, Rakaa is interested in introspection; he quietly reflects on the shifting sands of his past and the ever-changing future of his genre, all from a voice that is confident and melancholy in the same breath. There’s a celebration of hip-hop’s heritage here, mixed with a slight hint of uncertainty regarding what’s to come.
The hardcore dedication to a classic rap formula brings a collection of grievances in tow with its multitude of triumphs. In today’s hip-hop climate, songs are much more likely to twist and turn as they go along, a stark difference from the repetitive minimalism of the underground’s past. This return to form feels like meeting an old friend for the first few songs. However, as tracks start scratching the four-minute mark and the beats refuse to fluctuate, a sense of tedium emerges. A handful of these instrumentals are begging for meaningful progression (or even a complete flip), yet they continue to run in circles even when a hook leaps into the arena. In a world where listeners are used to fast-paced explosions of energy, an album made up entirely of slow-burners comes across as more than a little lethargic.
At the risk of mixing similes, Directors of Photography is like a victory lap for its legendary creators. They’re still running strong with their arms held high in the air, but the checkered line has come and gone, and it has taken the incentive to sprint faster with it. We’re still getting solid verses being performed over well-produced beats, but a lack of hunger and ambition has led to an LP that doesn’t seem too keen on progression. Dilated Peoples aren’t moving their vision forward in any interesting or surprising ways, but there are much worse crimes to commit than settling for greatness.
3.5 out of 5
You can download Directors of Photography here.