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It Ain’t Dark Down There At All

Photo by Jonathan Mannion

Some songs are made to pre-existing specs that, within reason, anyone could follow. Take two of my favorite self-referential tracks this year, Jagged Edge’s “Where’s the Party At?” and Jadakiss’ “Knock Yourself Out.” Except for a few language quirks, these songs could have been released three months earlier by different artists and nobody would have thought anything of it. Then there are songs like Dungeon Family’s “Crooked Booty,” which make me think, “They must be able to fly. Why else would they jump? And who else would try?” Goodie Mob’s Cee-Lo sings us in with nothing but a piano and his Dungeon Family. He testifies that he’s “supplying the soul with that unmistakable, mystical, magical feeling that your money can’t buy” over a four-chord sequence that’s harmonically deeper than 100 percent of hip-hop before the song’s really begun. The more he sings, the more church he gets. It all gets cut short by a cry of “Crooked booty!,” and a sound — traditionally called a beat — starts in.

This is the kind of beat it is: For the whole song, I was looking for my glasses, which flew off when it started because I made this kind of “erk” head motion. A drummer I play with, who is smarter than you and me put together, was trying to figure out what time signature the beat is in and couldn’t. It’s unbearably funky and sounds like Alan Lomax recording exploding elephant popcorn with a contact mic, and if it gets on the radio we might as well all go home. When your ear has made peace with the beat, you’ll hear a comfortable male voice a-tripping along: “We don’t speak proper English, when we walk we strut our stuff/We act like life is gravy even though it’s oh so rough/My doctor diagnosed me and he said now here’s the deal/You’re coming down with a bad case of the crooked booty.” Welcome to dinner with Dungeon Family, who are — deep breath — producers Organized Noize (Rico Wade, Patrick “Sleepy” Brown and Ray Murray); songwriters Marqueze Etheridge and Brandon Bennet; a stack of MCs including OutKast, Goodie Mob, Backbone, Cool Breeze, Witchdoctor and Slimm Calhoun; and singers Society of Soul.

Now, if we want to step back and be clearheaded about it, “Crooked Booty” is a straight P-Funk update, but nobody other than Shock G has ever handled the reins of P-Funk better than OutKast’s Andre 3000. In American pop right now, nobody can match him for mind- and ass-moving, and it’s Andre’s tracks on Even in Darkness that propel it above better-than-average Southern bounce. Dungeon Family will talk about the South, thank you, whether or not it makes sense, which is what held back OutKast’s remarkable music from reaching its natural audience until “Ms. Jackson” got involved. The entire Dungeon Family is so steeped in Southern swing and syncopation that even a low-protein dumbo boast like Slimm Calhoun’s “Forever Pimpin’” will fool you into loyalty just because of Organized Noize’s sweetly slippery-sliding string beat.

It’s usually not good for Team Hip-Hop when someone lets the MC sing, unless the MC is attacking the entire idea of singing from above, à la Nice & Smooth and Biz Markie. Dungeon Family prove the rule with an exception: Andre and Goodie Mob’s Cee-Lo provide the biggest surges on EID when they let loose in full throat. On “Rollin’,” the chariot swings low enough to raise the question Is this hip-hop?, and Andre welcomes the congregation by animating the old saw “Everybody wants to go to heaven/but nobody wants to die” with so much old-format soul it’s hard to pay attention to what comes next, which is a lot of basso profundo funk. Cee-Lo’s bass rasp threatens to steal the show, as he does on every Goodie Mob record: “I dare you to define me, you can time me/I promise in 60 seconds you will be intrigued and/Overwhelmed and obligated to rewind me” from “Six Minutes (Dungeon Family, It’s On).”

As a midpriority one-off with everyone doing a little bit of the puzzle, Even in Darkness could never have the momentum or concept of a Stankonia. But these guys’ side projects actually make hip-hop sound as wide-open and hopeful as all those books on the shelf tell me it is. Like they say, “Follow the lights, they lead to something.”

DUNGEON FAMILY | Even in Darkness | (Arista)