The Alchemist - Russian Roulette
Alchemist’s sound first knocked through speakers in the late ’90s for the first generation of non-gangster West Coast rap not directly tied to The Good Life scene. He later branched out to produce some of the gulliest East Coast street songs for the likes of Mobb Deep, Raekwon, and himself, while becoming Enimen’s tour DJ. For over a decade Alchemist has carved out a name and sound that is synonymous with traditionalist production aesthetics and noir contemporary gangster philosophizing.
Yet after dozens of albums and many collaborations, it has been within the last two yeas that Al has reinvented his sound. While the samples, loops and chops become more unhinged and obscure, the beats have settled into an amalgam of stark melody, ethereal groove and blunted mood music. It’s a progressive approach to lo-fi techniques that is dramatic and has given boom-bap a swift punch to the jaw, while Spitta, Evidence, ScHoolboy Q, and Roc Marciano have reaped the benefits.
Seemingly following his brethren Oh No’s lead in creating sonic tapestries from one source or region, Alchemist mined the crates of Russian music for his third proper producer helmed album. Where the Gangrene records are theatrical, booming and borderline totems of drug-fueled vision quests, Russian Roulette is a quieter collection of songs that feels like walking home from a bar after shots of whiskey and a fist fight. Action Bronson rolls through early on “Decisions Over Veal Orloff” continuing his stellar butcher with a smile and bloody knife pen game over woozy trumpets and a church organ. Later, Roc Marci and Al deliver the toe-tag goods with “The Turning Point”, a trembling gangster ode driven by a nasty quivering guitar loop. The album’s most raucous moment comes when Danny Brown and ScHoolboy Q spit their drug fueled, sex charged punch lines with the gusto and ease of Kim K and Ye making public appearances. It makes me wanna slap anything close by when the track comes on.
Yet, Russian Roulette does kind of lull and drag at points when the rappers don’t rock over the beats. Of course the Donuts comparison(s) is inevitable, but where Dilla’s deathbed master piece captured the art of the loop and chop in a time where it was seemingly getting lost and played out, Al seems to rely too heavily on the quality of the found sample to contribute to the album’s atmosphere. While there are some definite instrumental gems here, at times I found myself waiting for the next rapper to breathe the final component into the track.
Fittingly though, the album’s finest moment comes near its end when Mr. Muthaf*ckin’ eXquire’s gravel voiced bully raps paint a sci-fi narrative of groupie sex, interplanetary travel and war, all while paying homage to Biggie’s “Warning”. With the ominous female vocals and swirling space noises “The Kosmos, Pt. 7” is one of the most compelling and creative songs of the year. So while Alchemist ambitious long player isn’t the masterpiece I expected it to be, it definitely delivers many goods with or without some of rap’s best talents. Now load Al’s sonic bullets into your music player, take a shot of vodka, and make tough guy poses into your mirror as Russian Roulette adds another link to Alchemist’s top-tier production legacy