Do you know what I generally dislike about leftfield rap? In their attempts to distort and intellectualise hip hop, they often seem to forget what it is that makes rap music such a vital and powerful force. Its all very well being cerebral, but if your flow is poor, your beats unimaginative and your lyrics unusual but impersonal and lacking in resonance.. well, its probably not going to be that appealing. I’m all for the pushing of genres to their boundaries, but if you lose sight of the bases of the style of music you’re destined to fail. Or at least irritate me slightly.
With which I bring along Edan. He’s leftfield (don’t expect to hear Trevor Nelson playing him anytime soon) and he’s definitely geeky and cerebral (lanky be-afro’d Caucasian who attended music college). But this guy knows his hip hop, and he certainly knows what makes hip hop great.
Witness his song Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme from the album Beauty and the Beat. A heavy boom-bappified history of rap music in three minutes, where he pays homage to the people who’ve informed his style with great deftness and skill. Basically, it proves Edan is not a know-nothing pretender. He understands and loves hip hop.
And this obsession is shown throughout the album in his rapping. To be fair, he isn’t the most technically gifted rapper, occasionally straying behind the beat and adopting a slightly one sided tone. But he certainly comprehends the rhythm and flow of great hip hop lyrics, often performing superbly (and his slight errors aren’t that noticeable).
Lyrically he’s an incredibly vivid vocalist, cramming a thought provoking and amusing couplet in at least every few lines. And almost every other line is great at worst. There are a few lyrical missteps here and there which stray a bit too close to the ’embarrassing’ line (“scientists explain that we no longer know things, a dog takes a shit on the floor and grows wings” being my least favourite couplet by far). But come on, even Dylan dropped a few clangers amongst his best work. And there’s more than enough to make up for any less favourable parts. He is a little bit geeky in his lyrical content, his preference being the wordy and technical, but its all done with such finesse and skill that its difficult to put down. And any of his more bookish tendencies are countered with superb examples of (often tongue in cheek) braggadacio. My personal favourite is “I gotta chill though, whilst thinking bout sex, cos its risky for my third leg, or should I say the second neck”.
But Edan isn’t simply a talented imitator of hip hop past. The thing which really makes him stand out as a rap artist is his backing music and the production that goes into it: as a producer, I think he’s almost second to none (on this album at least). His drums may stick to the typical reverent sounds of old-school boom-bap, but they have a perfect tone and crispness, never too sharp and always fitting with the rest of the music perfectly. And they’re always superbly funky and rhythmic.
But the music behind the beats is something else. Swirling organs loops , heavy funk guitar, encompassing bass, backwards loops.. The main reference point for this music is the 60s and 70s, and not just 70s funk breaks. This is deeply psychedelic music in the classic sense, with touchstones in 60s pop and 70s rock. And its all pulled together perfectly.
I think you can definitely put this down to his list of influences, and Edan’s tastes certainly don’t begin and end with hip hop. As well as being a trained musician he’s obviously a fan of such far reaching touchstones as King Crimson, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Talking Heads (all of which are mentioned in Rock And Roll, amongst numerous others). And its not only the analogue sounds of such bands which inform Edan’s music. The flow of the album is particularly reverential, each track going perfectly into the next with the superbly subtle fluidity of an old school vinyl psych lp. And the consistency between each track.. Seriously, this guy knows his shit. The album is also a very sprightly 35 minutes, not falling prey to the overextended indulgence many of hip hop’s detractors use as their second line of attack (misogyny/violence being the first of course). But not a single second is wasted here.
Upon its release (in 2005) the album was lauded by every rock critic doing the rounds. As a cynic, you might say it was because Edan attached himself to a lot of rockist touchstones, made a nice analogue sounding record and didn’t take the sexist/violent lyrics anywhere past mildly tongue in cheek. And since ALL critics are stuck in the past/hate ’real’ hip hop this is why they like it.
But as anyone who’s actually heard it, you can say the mass love for Beauty and the Beat is because it’s a supremely good album which is certainly one of the best rap records in recent times.