When rock and hip-hop collide, the results are as inconsistent as they are overestimated. There’s no denying that the Beastie Boys made a string of remarkable albums fusing the two, and since then Zack De La Rocha’s raucous flow helped forge the very best from Tom Morello’s instrumentals. But, on the very extreme contrary, we’ve been subject to Limp Bizkit and the nü-metal phenomenon of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, a movement that suffered from a baffling lack of talent from its god-awful beginnings to its tortuous twilight. And how about that collaboration between Linkin Park and Jay-Z? As I said, the results are inconsistent. With Blakroc, the eponymous debut from Ohio based blues-rockers the Black Keys and a band of hip-hop’s most talented heavyweights, there seems to be an attempt to circumvent the polarizing facets of the rock and rap genres, instead concentrating on producing a cohesive record birthed from the subtleties of both.
The album kicks off with “Coochie,” modeling an oriental sitar hook and pounding drums with Ludacris and an exhumed Ol’ Dirty Bastard alternating microphone duties. The contrast between the soft strings and the booming percussion section works exceptionally, and suffice to say the emcees don’t drop the ball. It’s a blessing to hear fresh ODB material, this verse apparently lifted from his recordings while signed to Def Jam that never saw an official release. He simply has no peers, wailing “I got somethin’ to prove/I done got my groove back/I’m all in the news/But papa got a brand new weed bag and some blue suede shoes” with the same uncompromising conviction that he barked his finest rhymes. Mos Def, perhaps the most experienced of Blakroc‘s emcees in working with a live band, smoothly croons over the easy-listening blues jam “On the Vista”; his byzantine wordplay may be tricky to decipher, but with a voice this silky it’s easy to forgive the Brooklyn utility man. Following a screeching guitar solo, Mos indulges in the singing we’ve forcibly become accustomed to since The New Danger, then fading out with soft-spoken commentary.
The album gets off to a strong start, continuing with the punch-packing rhythms of “Dollaz & Sense,” on which RZA and Pharoahe Monch exchange beguiling verses on either side of an eerie blues chorus. Pharoahe provides the highlights with his sierra-heavy introduction: “I see dead people when I spit with my sixth sense/My 16 with sick sentences that make sense.” Nicole Wray, who provides the soulful sounds whenever Blakroc needs a diva, tells the blues from a female perspective over the deep bass and distorted guitar of “Why Can’t I Forget Him?” If mixed differently, it could well be your assembly line R&B number, but the heavy distortion and crashing percussion make for an engrossing soul jaunt.
Fresh from his outright brilliant turns on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II earlier this year, Raekwon throws more coal on his fire with “Stay Off the Fuckin’ Flowers,” which couples a simple ivory hook with a walking bassline, letting the Chef weave a story saturated with his brand of street slang. His storytelling is captivating and his delivery is mesmeric, cementing his reputation as one of the most important figures in hip-hop.
The foremost reason Blakroc has managed to bridge the gap between rock and hip-hop is because they’ve managed to amass the most competent and most adaptable emcees in the business to supply the prose. And the musicianship, while never show-stealing, provides more than adequate foundations on which these talents can strut their stuff. Without a doubt, Blakroc can be considered a gamble that has most certainly paid off; this is the most credible fusion of the two genres in a long, long while.