Like hip-hop producers, DJs occupy a strange boundary zone in popular music, ostensible creators who are nonetheless appreciated more as conduits. For the few who have managed to secure widespread name recognition, and whose interests stretch beyond mere crate-digging, the decision to branch out into composing original material seems natural. While spanning a broad variety of musical styles, such efforts generally fall into one of two categories, either winnowing down their focus in pursuit of a consistent album aesthetic, or attempting to approximate the expansive, improvisatory nature of a live set. Despite the recurrence of various career-spanning traits, RJD2 generally pursues the latter on Dame Fortune, a wide-ranging assortment of sonic sketches that also serves as a reminder of how old-fashioned this type of album has become.
Traditionalism is in some ways built into the fabric of the sampler album, which mirrors the early recorded adaptation of communal live entertainment, as opposed to the more recent notion of a work created specifically for private consumption. A defining point for the format employed here comes via the tranquil cool of 1950s exotica, which both compressed big-band sensationalism and expanded its possibilities, tapping into a world’s worth of sounds and instruments. Like many global-minded DJs, RJD2 follows in the footsteps of such artists, presenting a collection of eclectic electronica-oriented hip-hop with an international focus, pairing genteel world music with breakbeats and the occasional guest vocalist. The appearance of these voices seems like an additional nod toward hip-hop’s version of the sampler album, the producer-curated group effort, on which a big name gathers like-minded collaborators to work over their original material, inverting the usual headliner dynamic.
Dame Fortune stands somewhere between these two styles, though the results would likely be stronger if it stuck to sketching out instrumental soundscapes; guest-feature tracks here tend to be bloated and lyrically one-dimensional. Opening track “A Portal Inward” is a bass-y, spacey riff on the vinyl-evoking jazziness of hip-hop’s current West Coast brand of analog revisionism. The nod toward this sound—brought to prominence by artists like Thundercat and Flying Lotus—makes perfect sense. It currently signifies literate, consciously constructed rap about as succinctly as RJD2 and company’s brash Def Jux aesthetic once did. He continues to maintain a stylistic connection to the earnest, erudite approach that pioneering label was famous for, but also calls up a few unwanted reminders of its tendency toward solemn preachiness and rigid genre fundamentalism, as demonstrated on lifeless material like the inert, repetitive “Saboteur” and the maudlin, overwrought “Up in the Clouds.”
Guest stars have always been a weakness on RJD2’s albums, and here the need to pull in outside artists again distracts from an otherwise skillful, balanced collection of original compositions and sampled content. It also draws further attention to the fact that, for all the flourishes, explorations, and tangents on display, from the snappy Middle Eastern—inflected fantasia of “The Roaming Hoard” to the cozy, sparkling soul fusion of “PF, Day One,” not much new ground is being broken. That said, Dame Fortune isn’t expressly aiming for innovation, content to riff on existing styles and spin out a sinuous braid of pleasant sounds; in short, a breezy DJ set attuned for meditative easy listening. When this approach clicks, the results are nothing less than sumptuous, a rich panorama of material organized by an artist whose greatest talents seem to lie in curation.