I’d been thinking a lot about Kool Keith not long before this record arrived, having recently revisited The Fat of the Land, The Prodigy’s bombastic 1997 release which featured a stellar guest track from the veteran Bronx MC. That led me down a rabbit hole of other tunes he’d been featured on in the late ’90s, from the likes of DJ Spooky and Prince Paul. Such tracks, though, were just drops in the bucket of a career that started with the Ultramagnetic MCs in the ’80s and which includes dozens of albums released under various monikers and adopted personas as well as collaborations with such talents as Ice T (Analog Brothers), the late Tim Dog (Ultra), and of course, producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura and DJ QBert, with whom he teamed up on his 1996 solo debut Dr. Octagonecologyst, a pivotal moment in underground hip-hop and a fixture on my undergrad student radio station.
So this is the context in which I arrived at Feature Magnetic (Mello Music Group), grounded in Keith’s mid- and late ’90s output and not entirely sure what to expect from the eclectic, enigmatic rapper in 2016. Before I get into what I found, it’s probably best to dispense with a disclaimer for those unfamiliar with Kool Keith. His lyrics can be, well… colorful. Some might even call them pornographic or profane, but descriptors rarely do justice. Crass sexual braggadocio is part of the Kool Keith formula, and one that I thought detracted from this sonically intriguing album, at least on the handful of cuts where it took center stage. Keith has a style that is unmistakably his: he delivers his verses almost like they are incidental conversational asides, a collage of what comes across as a stream of consciousness thoughts, odd juxtapositions, and internal rhymes that aren’t exactly easy to follow but sound pretty damn cool on the right beat.
We get a choice slab of such production from the get-go, first with the dark and minimalistic “Stratocaster,” kept apace by a few simple piano notes, and then the spaced-out “MC Voltron,” which features old-school luminary Craig G and wouldn’t sound out of place on a mix plucked from Keith’s solo debut. The haunted atmospherics continue on “Super Hero,” another strong track featuring MF Doom. Bumpy Knuckles later appears on “Cold Freezer,” an aptly named cut with another cold, dark beat and Keith rapping like he’s hungry.
Midway through, though, the record takes a left turn with “Bonneville,” which features Bay Area rapper Mac Mall and a laidback, classic West Coast vibe that bleeds into “Tired,” a strong track on which Keith articulates some of the frustrations tied to fame and veteran Boston rapper Ed O.G. sounds off on the industry treatment of artists, community violence, police relations, and more. “Writers,” with Ras Kass, gets a little more experimental, with a beat reminiscent of vintage Antipop Consortium.
On “Peer Pressure,” we get something of a linear narrative, with Keith reminiscing about childhood. “My mom used to dress me and my brother Kevin like twins. Walking through the Bronx streets, I wore a navy peacoat that would withstand one degree wind. The chill factor turned me into a lyrical pastor.” The 12th track, “Life,” is similarly introspective and begins with a sample of Malcolm X explaining his comment about “chickens coming home to roost” after the JFK assassination. Here, Sadat X spits a tale about fighting a case against an unfriendly judge (“Even though they got this black boot around my neck. I still want respect.”) and Keith announces his own “national anthem.” He raps, “I refuse to be on the team with their heads down going to take showers. If you see a junkie kneeling, give him cold water and tell him kids is looking.” Though ultimately I found the album to be a mixed bag, moments like these, along with the diverse production, made me glad to have reacquainted myself with Kool Keith. I’m definitely curious to hear where he goes next.