Great hip-hop duos are more plentiful than the criminally individualistic rap game would suggest. Just as there’s no “I” in team, there’s no “I” in album either, and from Blackalicious on to Gang Starr, great hip-hop duos have been working in syncopation for decades in order to drop classic work on the world. Oh No and Chris Keys’ collaborative work, Ashes, is no Aquemini or Mecca & The Soul Brother but it also doesn’t aim for those heights. There’s no awkward Kobe-emulating-MJ obsession on Ashes, it’s just two liked-minded individuals flexing their respective muscles in seamless unison, making the case for a resurgence of great hip-hop pairings.
The danger of having too many cooks in the kitchen never seemed to be a danger with Ashes―despite the abundance of newsreel sounds of alarms and disaster. Though there seems to be a running theme of social critique somewhere near the skin of the album, Oh No and Chris Keys’ musical leanings take front seat. That’s not to suggest that Oh No’s rhythmic musings are ignored, but rather that mood is the protagonist here. Mood is a quality that is too often underplayed in hip-hop, but something that Chris Keys has a very good grasp of given his classical and jazz theory background. Surely Oh No, who is no chump behind the boards himself, made it easier for Keys to develop the smokey psychedelia that makes up Ashes by providing his own production insight.
On “Feet”, Oh No, who gets enough comparisons to his older brother Madlib, sounds like a higher-resolution Lord Quas, namely when it comes to his bar layouts. Keys provides a conveyer belt of a beat, which fits nicely with the themes of the song. Hearing it next to Madvillain’s “Shadows of Tomorrow” reveals how high Oh No and Keys could reach if they so wanted to. “Big Thangs” and “Strangers”, too, are exceptional pieces of music that deserve to be blasted out of car windows as much as any club anthem. Beyond “The End”, starring Killah Priest, which funny enough sounds like the logical end to the album, Ashes provides two bonus tracks that feel out of place. If any qualm for the album exists, it’s that the song arrangement seems illogical at times, which takes away from some of the great contrast provided on Ashes.
As a first piece of collaboration, Ashes is a mood-driven work that reminds listeners of hip-hop’s storied courtship with great hip-hop groups. While it is far from being a genre classic, Ashes sounds like a valuable first step in what is sure to be a long union between Oh No and Keys.