Former Ultramagnetic MC’s frontman Kool Keith has not released an album under his Dr. Octagon persona since 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst. Helmed by the legendary Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, the album was a masterpiece of atmospheric beats and juvenile rhymes—if George A. Romero and Bob Guccione produced Thriller, it might have sounded something like this. Produced by the Berlin-based One Watt Sun collective, the decade-in-waiting follow-up The Return of Dr. Octagon is made up largely of quirky disco beats rather than the Automator’s gloomy mood pieces. The album is plenty dance-y, but Octagonecologyst‘s admirers ought to find it sufficiently weird—this is Kool Keith we’re talking about. The Return isn’t the return we were waiting for, but it’s another explosive collection of anti-hits from hip-hop’s most unique voice.
Opener “Trees” packs Keith’s esoteric, bizarre lyrics (“Trees may be extinct like the elephants,” “Carbon dioxide comin’ out to you,” etc.) into a track of vintage synths and syncopated blips that sounds an awful lot like Madonna’s “Music.” Everything sounds great, but it isn’t particularly distinctive. The Return is more successful when it embraces its tone of familiarity: DJ Dexter of the Avalanches guests on “Ants,” a turntable-driven sound collage with a four-on-the-floor tempo to put Sean Paul to shame. The awesome “Al Green” deconstructs Off the Wall-style basslines with multiple tracks of Keith’s lyrics—in this case, gripes about haters who think they’re Al Green, Tracy Chapman, or from Pakistan—inverted upon one another, sounding less like a new track and more like a remix. Even tracks with easily traced influences are still abrasive in their inventiveness, but as is the case for much of the album, this isn’t Kool Keith/Doc Ock’s inventiveness—it’s One Watt Sun’s. No harm no foul, I suppose, but The Return seems like false advertising.
The strangest track here is, without question, “A Gorilla Driving A Pick-Up Truck,” which pairs One Watt Sun’s laser sound effects and Eurotrash beats with a grumbled monologue and dusty blues riff straight out of Tom Waits’s Bone Machine. I doubt even Waits could grant “A Gorilla Driving A Pick-Up Truck” the solemnity that Keith is aiming for—the lyrics are about exactly what you think they’re about—but it’s still the only real challenge here. Allegedly, Keith was committed to Bellevue years ago, and some listeners may seek an exploitative Daniel Johnston/Wesley Willis/that guy from Thirteenth Floor Elevators-type listen. But “Gorilla” may be less a depiction of mental illness than a brave marriage of “white” and “black” music—although, then again, it’s probably just supposed to be fucking funny.