Unlike other rappers in his generational bracket, so many prone to rank conservativism and eyeroll-inducing quarrel in this elder-exploiting YouTube age, Kool Keith stays characteristically spry. One of the greatest ever to spit a rhyme, he’s a hip-hop legend cruising on a sexagenarian cusp, if Wikipedia birthdays are to be believed. A lifelong dirtybird easing into naughty old man status with no apologies, he keeps his Instagram account safely concealed behind digital mylar, sharing provocative content that matches his erotic interests in the same feed as he promotes his concerts.
Given who we're talking about, the pioneering Ultramagnetic MC for whom lechery is as inextricable from his rap persona(s) as his molten core of confidence, this feels something like a relief. Because as much as his dweebiest devotees titter over those impressive and iconic bars about space and surgery, Kool Keith has always been about feeling himself–first and foremost. As grotesque as things got on Dr. Octagonecologyst or First Come, First Served, both of those seminal solo albums spoke to his supremacy over all who dared step to a mic. 1997's Sex Style focused on his pleasure above all, an over-the-top paean to the profane relayed by a salacious storyteller so enamored of the adult film industry that he ditched The Bronx then up-and-moved to California.
Keith's libido notwithstanding, his creative output in recent years hasn't kept that same B.D.E., if you catch my drift. I'm not one of those stubborn listeners who all-but refuse to engage with anything he's done since Black Elvis/Lost In Space, but the 2010s and 2020s aren't exactly a renaissance era. His own documented distaste for that passable Dr. Octagon reunion LP Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation from 2018 acknowledges that. But as much as I personally advocate for Time? Astonishing! with L'Orange and the utterly odd Saks 5th Ave, his decision-making over the past decade makes it challenging to be an actively engaged fan. Some of these projects, whose titles I shall not cite out of respect (or at least civility) for all involved, tend to come out less like inspired collaborations than capitalist commissions done under mild-t0-medium duress.
The first new album of genuine notability and substance from Keith in quite some time, Serpent stands apart from those pay-to-play dates. One can’t ever fault him from cashing checks that others willingly write, but in fairness his oversized catalog doesn’t always extend that same value to his eager and, generally, forgiving fanbase. Still, regardless of the financial details, he is well served here by Real Bad Man, a curatorial producer muscling his way into the center of indie hip-hop discussions of late. With whole album joints opposite the likes of Boldy James and Pink Siifu, not to mention compilations that bring similarly dope rappers into his sonic space, he clearly recognized the opportunity he was presented with here and acted accordingly. Who else would’ve had the courage to give Keith something so Griseldan as “Fire And Ice” to spit over?
Bookended by kitschy hypnotist bits in an unsubtle nod to Dan The Automator’s gleeful sampling services, Serpent excels largely because of its musical diversity, which in turn allows Keith to showcase his multifaceted and multidimensional skills as the moment requires. “Jungle Fever” comes off as ruthless as anything off 2000’s scathing Matthew set, as does the triumphant yet perverse “The Great Marlowe.” Amid ebulliently-called play-by-plays from no less than Analog Brother Ice-T himself, he revives several of his best known pseudonyms (and a less-cited one too) on the lyrical donnybrook “Battle.
Sports metaphors abound on several of the aforementioned championship cuts, as well as “Rugged Rugged” and “Off The Glass,” another reflection of his lofty MVP-turned-coach viewpoint. And though we’ll have to wait a little longer before we hear what he’s been cooking up with Ced Gee, his relatively recent live reunions with the Ultramagnetic MC’s seem to have been a good influence on his pen. The old-school rhymefests “Brainstorm” and “Trippin Over Flowers” support that theory strongly.
Passport Rav & Bloo Azul, 83
Studio chemistry between rappers is hardly a sure thing. Even in the same subgenre or thematic grouping, some of the dopest emcees turn auspicious team-ups into jumbled messes where they barely sound like they're on the same track. Still, attempts to make a Ghost-and-Rae-level pairing abound, and few such recent efforts come as close as this one between Passport Rav and Bloo Azul. Both NYC-area spitters are used to the solo spotlight, working most often on single-producer projects that elevate their skills. But their lyrical interchange on 83 couldn't feel more natural than it does on "Get Out My Face" and "Hunger Games," two examples of their gifted give-and-take. The forthright frankness of "Rubik's Cube" overflows with accomplishments and criticisms, with both artists commanding the bully pulpit. Though Sherman and Wavy Da Ghawd land some of the best beats here, Rav's own production talents shine bright on the midnight jazz of "The Consequence" and the rollicking piano bap of "Wanna Be."
Le Lune, Mirrors On The Moon
There is this gratifyingly gonzo quality to Le Lune’s Mirrors On The Moon, a manically accessible rap record from an artist in (im)perfect harmony with our utterly chaotic zeitgeist. The intense intro “TOUCHDOWN” bleeds profusely into the raucous posse cut “LYK,” a rare selfless act on one’s own project. Produced by Miles Canady with the panache of peak Roc-A-Fella, “Untitled Because I Said So” exemplifies Lune’s classically-informed yet indisputably inventive approach, remixing iconic Bebe’s Kids quippery into one of the year’s effortlessly addictive hooks. He flows as effectively and impactfully over the beat abstraction “Y” as he does to the sparkling rhythm-and-blues blowout “MINUTE BEFORE LAST CALL.”
38 Spesh, Gunsmoke
After kicking the year off with a joint project opposite Vic Spencer, with another collaborative album with Grafh on the way, 38 Spesh seems poised to make a huge mark on 2023. Named after the Rochester rapper’s proprietary cannabis strain, Gunsmoke fills the gap between those two records with eight tracks full of the emboldened street vet bars his name is now synonymous with. The titular intro leaves no ambiguity about where he's from or what he's done, something reinforced by "Dark & Grim." He schemes with Che Noir on “Chris & Snoop” while giving the late Fred The Godson a posthumous spot on the rugged "Saint Bruno." Yet its the Harry Fraud-helmed "Outside" with raspy maestro Flee Lord that marks the album's high point, with Spesh countering his guest with wiseguy realism.