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Friday, June 21, 2024
The Observer

Blakroc' An Impressive Venture

Damon Dash in one of the many men in the entertainment industry whose profile doesn't match his influence. (In that sense, he's like Diddy, but the exact opposite).

He's one of the co-founders of Roc-A-Fella Records as well as the respective clothing line and film studio. He's worth more than $50 million and has ambition to get more. Any important act on Roc-A-Fella's roster from Jay-Z to Kanye West has worked with him.

There is one rather odd thing about the man though: his favorite band is The Black Keys.
If that doesn't seem odd, it's most likely because of unfamiliarity with The Black Keys' body of work. Working out of Ohio, the guitar and drums duo (insert unnecessary White Stripes comparison here) have been at the forefront of a wave of blues revival.

After seven albums, they've gained favorable comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin and enough critical success to warrant working with Ike Turner, Danger Mouse and Rick Rubin. Continually poised to break into the mainstream, they've never quite gotten over the hump, and instead have found their music played in commercials, movies and television shows instead of on the radio waves.

Dash reached out to The Black Keys and met them in studio accompanied by Jim Jones, a recent business and music partner of Dash. During the ensuing session, Mos Def interrupted the recording and ultimately joined in the collaboration, putting the finishing touches on the album's only single, "At Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)."

In the following 10 days, The Black Keys recorded with an impressive set of important players in hip-hop, including Ludacris, RZA, Pharoahe Monch, Raekwon and Q-Tip, as well as acquiring an unused record from the late Ol' Dirty Bastard.

The resulting "Blakroc" is a dangerous foray into a sullied genre. Any collaboration between rock and rap must not only have its own merits, but must also risk association with so-called nu-metal acts such as Korn and Limp Bizkit. Luckily, the sound harkens more to the early joining of the two musical styles, reminiscent of Run DMC and Aerosmith or Anthrax and Public Enemy. Twenty years after these pioneers, rap and rock pairings cannot survive on novelty alone and "Blakroc" succeeds where they easily could have failed.

The sound is completely comfortable and organic. By enlisting rappers who flourished under a gritty and under-produced style, The Black Keys were able to maintain their own sensibilities while putting the spotlight firmly on the hip hop. The lyrics stick firmly to matters explored thoroughly in both genres — sex, drugs and money — and the music idolizes them in all the glory for which both styles have been demonized.

There are two outstanding performances: Raekwon and Nicole Wray. Raekwon's gravelly flow, story book lyrics and stark realities on "Stay Off the Flowers" put the song far and above the best song on the album and an easy frontrunner for the best rap song released in 2009. This track, along with last year's "Only Built for Cuban Linx Pt 2," solidifies Raekwon's position in the pantheon of rap.

While Raekwon's performance is unsurprising, Nicole Wray is reborn. A one-hit wonder from the 90s, Wray complements The Black Keys with a bluesy, soulful voice on "Why Can't I Forget Him," as well as three more impressive hooks.

"Blakroc" is a hopeful noise in two genres that are currently weighted down with excess, money and executive control. While the album missteps on its opening track, guided by Ludacris, the spirit of early rock and hip hop is clearly evident and the swagger is unmistakable. Not content with merely releasing one of the best albums of 2009, Dash and The Black Keys also started a record label, anticipating more to come, and if it's of the same brilliance as "Blakroc," it's more than welcome.