Review Summary: Kool A.D.'s second solo album/mixtape is a clear improvement from his earlier 'Palm Wine Drinkard,' and manages to strike a surprising balance between self-indulgence and fun, listenable rap.
The point is that it's self-indulgent.
Kool A.D., one-third of the now-disbanded slacker-rock-rap trio Das Racist, seems to thrive on bringing an esoteric edge to his music, pushing it as far into the realm of weird as he can possibly go. One of his early self-released albums, 2010's 'Hyphy Ballads,' saw him rapping over chopped-up Bjork songs. When he remixed Kanye West's "New God Flow," he named the song "Exotische Kunst" -- literally, "exotic art."
Often, it would seem like Kool A.D. (real name Victor Vazquez) was more interested in making statements than he was in actually making music. January 2012's mixtape 'The Palm Wine Drinkard' was a prime example of Vazquez's art school ambitions getting ahead of him actually making good music. The opening, title track featured the entire instrumental of OutKast's "SpottieOttieDopalicious" with some noise thrown on top. Though that mixtape also featured some pretty solid R&B tracks ("A Ganglion of Lightnings," "Girls and Women"), those were overshadowed by just how all over the board Vazquez was -- the mixtape also included a cacophonous instrumental jazz piece, two unnecessary remixes of Das Racist songs, and the bafflingly vocoded dance floor grind "Titties Out." Still, it was hard to fault Vazquez for his ambition, even when it fell far short of its aim.
Thankfully, his second mixtape, April 2012's '51,' sees a more focused Vazquez. Part of this new focus might be from the change in location -- he headed back to the San Francisco Bay area to record this one, employing plenty of little-known local names to tackle production and guest spots. Unsurprisingly (and satisfyingly), the album's production is cohesive, and it doesn't feel like a collection of disparate parts scotch-taped together by Kool A.D.'s weirdness. (Only the Mike Finito-produced "A Different World" feels out of place here -- featuring Das Racist's Heems and New York rapper Meyhem Lauren, it feels like a sudden and impermanent geographic shift.)
Not that there isn't weirdness. The album's third track, "La Pinata," features a sample of Mr. Rogers encouraging you to be "just the way you are" (it works; "La Pinata" is a standout). "Arrested Development" is essentially a reprise Palm Wine Drinkard's "Girls and Women." Retro-sounding samples from video games and whatever-the-hell-else are littered throughout the album. The album's best track, "Al Green," features a slowed-down sample of a riff from the titular artist's "Love and Happiness" that's almost hypnotic. And the album closes with the spiraling, relaxed instrumental "Island High Cypher."
That's not to mention Vazquez's flow here, punchline-only stream-of-consciousness lyrics that can stand up to any of his best work with Das Racist. On "Town Business," he calls himself a "brown Brian Wilson" before turning to declare that "haters is poopy-flavored." "You believe in me" Used to smoke weed and watch CNC and meditate on the G in me," he chuckles on "California Music Channel." On 51's truly great tracks (of which there are a few), the humor blends perfectly with the sunny, retro production.
But '51' has its shortcomings, though -- most in that it could have used some serious editing. He can't help but pitch-down vocals on the dismal "Damien Hirst," while "Power/Refinement Knowledge" is a clattering mess of an instrumental. "Gentry" consists of a two-and-a-half minute sample of a Civil Rights-era interview with activist Huey P. Newton. While Newton's words are, of course, powerful, it's out of place here and feels too much like Vazquez is trying to Make A Statement, a la Kanye West's "Who Will Survive in America"".
But, as with anything Kool A.D. does, it seems, there's going to be self-indulgence. His solo material often follows a "see what sticks" approach, which, despite what doesn't stick, provides a pretty compelling case for labeling Kool A.D. one of rap's resident weird guys. And with 51, a lot of it sticks anyway.