Free the Peoples!

Dilated Peoples . 20/20 . (Capitol)

Dilated Peoples are the J. Geils Band of indie hip-hop: They’ve earned their position the old-fashioned way — through years of relentless touring, honing an act that commands rabid crowds of hip-hop heads from here to Albany. The trouble is, much like Philly’s the Roots, they’ve mainly attracted the kind of fans who will line up all day to see them perform, then drag their feet when it comes to buying an album.

That’s partly why Dilated Peoples’ last album, 2004’s Neighborhood Watch (Capitol), wasn’t the industry breakout so many had predicted. Led by the top-shelf Kanye West production “This Way,” the fantastic album that was supposed to elevate the band into higher tax brackets stalled at the checkout counter. It didn’t help that the band’s hardcore constituency are among the savviest on the Internet, used to scoring copies often months before official release.

Ultimately, though, all these factors paled in comparison to the underground uproar around Dilated Peoples’ fast association with Kanye. Like any genre, hip-hop — particularly that murky domain known as “indie” hip-hop — is rife with purists. The way artists roll can be as important as the tracks they release. To hardcore rap fans, a staunchly underground L.A. crew cavorting with such a relatively mainstream star seemed like a crass attempt to cash in and, worse, sell out.

Of course, all such claims are ridiculous. Anyone who wants to see an act truly compromise artistic integrity for multiplatinum sales need look no further than the Black Eyed Peas. Until Rakaa busts out in a pair of Mickey Mouse gloves, or Evidence starts trading verses with half-naked white girls, it’s safe to say they’re at least keeping it in the realm of “real”-ness. Still, for Dilated Peoples, the relative flop of Neighborhood Watch had to hurt, and proved the kids weren’t all right with how the band was rolling — even without a token blond.

Which is why 20/20 stings like a slap in the face to anyone who cried sellout simply because a superstar like Kanye recognized their value. Setting the confrontational tone with “Kindness for Weakness,” rappers Rakaa and Evidence shred haters with their customary panache, featuring an apt guest verse from Talib Kweli, another rapper who knows something about the fickle nature of the indie hip-hop head. Evidence doesn’t hesitate to go for the throat in the ominous “Rapid Transit”: “Cats got weak/Come at me with a better line/I don’t respect rappers/I respect Kevin Federline.” After the similarly morose “Olde English,” incendiary reggae star Capleton almost overwhelms the dancehall-flavored “Firepower (The Tables Have to Turn)” with his immense vocal presence.

From there, the album runs like an Olympic skater hitting required marks. “The One and Only” gives it up for the DP DJ, allowing Babu to flex on the decks. They shout out their fierce weed-smoking contingency with goofy interludes from the pot-dealing “Dr. Greenthumb,” who sounds suspiciously like Cypress Hill’s B-Real. “The Eyes Have It” gives the conscious kids something to ponder. Sonically, 20/20 is a no-frills affair, with straightforward beats laying the groundwork for more histrionic lyrics.

Altogether, 20/20 plays like the consummate anti-sellout album, purposefully avoiding anything too radio-friendly (given the current state of “urban” radio, that’s a very good thing) and playing directly to the heart of the indie hip-hop nation. Therein, however, lies the rub. While 20/20 does everything “right,” it loses a certain something in the dogged determination to avoid mistakes, and to make sure the kids realize ain’t a damn thing changed. Then again, that’s kind of the album’s point. Consider it a palate-cleanser, a reaffirmation of the many reasons why Dilated Peoples are familiar with the heights of the underground hip-hop hierarchy. Maybe now they can kick back, blaze through a field of designer chronic and really take some chances next time. You know there’s more to the Dilated Peoples universe than they’re letting on to — for now.

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