Whither turntablism? Vinyl may not be dead but MP3s have eaten away at it like cancer, and who knows just how badly the legalese and cost of sample clearances have punctured the wheels of steel. Philadelphia-based producer RJD2 can’t be accused of ignoring all of this writing on the wall. After two highly regarded albums grounded in hip-hop instrumentals, the once and future Ramble John Krohn chose to get his inner Lenny Kravitz on, retreating into his home studio to play and arrange 2007’s The Third Hand by his lonesome.
It was arguably a divisive album. Surprisingly musically competent for “just a DJ,” its coulda-been-sampled pop soul had little of the streetwise sensibility of Dead Ringer and its ilk. RJD2’s latest album The Colossus seems intent on making things right with indie heads, getting them to nod and their speakers to boom in ways The Third Hand did not. Sadly, there’s still too much fake funk on here — while there’s evidence a comeback has started, it’s a comeback unfulfilled.
The album opens with “Let There be Horns,” a Starsky & Hutch-like pastiche of funk strings and chopped-up brass that plays to his original turntablist strengths. “The Stranger” adds a bit of spookiness to that recipe, while “Giant Squid” goes all concertina on our asses. “A Spaceship for Now” brings in big drums and warm synths that suggest Space and other foundations of the New French Touch. “A Son’s Cycle,” meanwhile, is the most indie/street thing going here, with The Catalyst, Illogic, and NP flowing over different sets of beats. But the cracks in The Colossus also start to show in “A Son’s Cycle” — the song feels incomplete, maybe one verse and one backing track short of a proper suite.
Further, songs like the haphazard “Small Plans” see RJD2 producing an all too cavalier, happy-go-lucky sound. They point out the most significant issue on the album: frequent forays into the jazzy pop of bands like Chicago and Steely Dan. This has its place in history but it also has its detractors, and brittle works like “The Glow,” “Gypsy Caravan,” and “Tin Flower” do RJD2 no favors. Only “Games You Can Win” truly approaches chiming, literate R&B, and it needs help from neo-soul artist Kenna to even do that.
Much like Moby should leave singing and rock riffs to more qualified others, and DJ Shadow fell off trying to expand into thug noise on The Outsider, RJD2 embraces sounds he really should be avoiding. How much the mistakes on The Colossus outweigh the potential can be summed up in the atmospheric “Let There be Horns” coda at the end. Teasing the hardest, most throwback-sounding beats on the album is a frustrating commentary on what this album might have been.
DJ Shadow – The Outsider
Moby – Hotel
Steely Dan – Gaucho
Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.