Review Summary: The debut album of the once-mysterious Captain Murphy borrows a lot from 2004's Madvillain, but that doesn't keep it from being fun on its own.
The anonymity that initially surrounded rapper Captain Murphy was a clever, buzz-building PR move. It was also a double-edged sword -- the preoccupation with finding out who this guy was eclipsed the music itself. When it was revealed, weeks after Duality's release, that Murphy was a pseudonym of Steve Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, much of the buzz surrounding the record predictably dispelled. Despite the fact that a face can now be placed to Murphy's name, though, Duality remains a compelling, enigmatic first release.
What turns out to be Duality's biggest strength is also its biggest flaw: it borrows a lot of its best ideas from MF Doom and his 2004 collaboration album Madvillainy. The obvious similarity here is the adoption of a cartoonishly villainous persona, though Captain Murphy's campier persona is made lighter through the presence of his comic-book cackle and references to "kitty cats." As with Doom, the weed-references are frequent and not out of place here: Duality makes it clear that we're not supposed to take Murphy's character seriously as a villain -- he's just a stoner nerd, probably sitting in a basement somewhere, making idle, half-joking threats. Unlike, say, some of the stuff on Doom's 'Born Like This,' there's little actual vitriol.
But Murphy would like for us to think so. Using the same cobbled-together-retro-samples approach that defined Madvillainy (hell, Madlib's even a guest producer here), Ellison gives Murphy a soundscape full of weird samples of cult leaders (and a cult leader how-to tape?). Calm voices with an undertone of palpable threat urge listeners that "Planet earth is about to be recycled. Your only chance to evacuate is to leave with us." Murphy apparently views himself as a similar cult leader with this tape, and wants to indoctrinate you with his music -- but he can't quite be compelled to get off the couch.
This stoner-slacker aesthetic fits in with the silly-but-dark cartoons of Adult Swim, through which the cartoonish character of Captain Murphy was introduced (via the very good Earl Sweatshirt collab "Between Friends," the best track here). Herein lies another big Madvillain comparison -- after all, Madvillain's music can occasionally be heard as bumper music on that channel.
There's plenty of great stuff going on with Duality. Structured like Madvillain, with short individual songs connected by retro-sample interludes, it encourages holistic listening. Ellison's production, while reminiscent of Madlib's instead of his work as Flying Lotus, features plenty of blissful instrumental segments as well (with tonal echoes of FlyLo's 'Until the Quiet Comes'). Occasionally, it's excessive (I'm looking at you, orgy sounds on "Children of the Atom"/"Gloe"), but mostly it works, providing an ever-flowing canvas over which Murphy can rap.
And how well does he rap? It's hard to say. Ellison's flow is nothing particularly special, though it is made memorable by being pitched down, giving him a demonic presence not too far removed from Tyler, the Creator (who many initially expected to be Captain Murphy).
The issue with Duality is, as should be clear now, it doesn't offer many original ideas. Ellison borrows heavily from Madvillain, both conceptually and sonically, for Captain Murphy, making Duality's homage to Madvillainy more than a little blatant. This isn't necessarily negative -- in fact, most of it's quite good -- but it can't help but feel like Ellison's rap persona isn't quite as full of musical innovation as Flying Lotus.
For all its lack of innovation, though, Duality is a solid genre-swapping effort from Ellison, and certainly manages to be one of the more intriguing rap releases of 2012.
Best tracks: "Between Friends," "Immaculation," "Mighty Morphin Foreskin"