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Sigh Language

Photo by Cynthia Hassey

Liquid love/baby looks like a bottle/let me watch you dance your way into my liver . . . Heaven must be missing an angel/or the devil counted one demon short . . . My band will break up/just to have a reunion tour . . . I never let people know my real emotions . . . A picture is worth a thousand words/A thousand words is only worth a memory . . . She wants to meet a man and squeeze out his kids/But downing Colt 45s, that’s all he ever did . . .

—AWOL One, “Revolution”

Well, “Gin and Juice” it ain’t. “Revolution” — a standout track on this landmark album-length collaboration between L.A. locals AWOL One (vocals, lyrics) and Daddy Kev (production, arrangements) — is the aftermath, the point in the late-late-evening when the alcohol-sponsored monologues begin to drift, when things get fuzzy and the “Should I laugh or cry?” question grows in importance. Shields-down revelations, metaphysical two-liners, trailed-off profundities: AWOL gets it all down, rescuing the drunk’s words as he falls from consciousness’ saddle. “I appreciate 2 o’clock/and all of its lessons,” he croons in a warm, weary foghorn. “Don’t be afraid to admit your downfalls/We all got ’em/And I think that I got ’em all . . .”

AWOL first earned serious ear time as one of the five underground L.A. rappers impersonating six members of the animal kingdom on “Farmers Market of the Beast,” originally released in late ’98 (and archived for posterity on Celestial’s Beneath the Surface showcase compilation, released in ’99). The nine-minute, nine-second track was a calling-card pun epic, a themed-association symphony-of-rhyme. “Word is bondage, kid/I live in your eyelid,” baaed the nimble Billy Goat (played by Radio Inactive); “Rumble in the Bronx barroom barnyard brawl/I was a teenage Neanderthal,” chimed the goofball Ape (played by Circus); “I was hatched/microphone umbilical/amplified intestines/my cries used to rhyme/you’re just a space monkey in a tinfoil hat,” warbled AWOL as the lazy Walrus, not standing out so much as laying back.

“Farmers Market” shoulda spawned stars and spread spores across hip-hop — which, OutKast aside, is in dire need of artists who can play an angle besides the LCD triumvirate of gold, murder and butt cheeks. But while New York’s underground has delivered genre-rejuvenating goods via Mos Def and Talib Kweli (serious, inventive artists who have stepped up and seized the album-length art mantle), L.A.’s talent-rich substream has burped up only moments of frustrating brilliance randomly scattered across obscure 12-inch releases and uneven compilations, with no one (save, perhaps, Aceyalone) dropping a full album that hasn’t reeked of underachievement.

Which is what makes Souldoubt doubly sweet and inspiring. It’s focused, coherent. There are no spotlight-gobbling guest voices, or skits, or ’80s Top 40–hit hook snaring. Rather than just tacking pre-existing beats to rhymes in the studio, AWOL and Kev seem to have actually workshopped off each other. Each song has a one-word title that is the track’s lyrical theme: “Ignorance” (“I wish I was a baby/with a fresh mind/a brand-new brain/no room to rewind/I’m a borderline genius/or a madman/I’m deaf dumb and blind/but I do what I can”), “Greed” (“Money changes humans/The ATM spits out blood”), “Devotion” (“I wish I was home in bed with my girlfriend/touching her feet under the covers once again”), etc.

Kev’s music spans forceful four-bar piano rolls (“Greed”), DJ Krush–ish spare midnight cool (“Demolition,” “Devotion”), post-“Boombastic” flute-loop action (“Rhythm”) and appropriately vertiginous string stabs (“Ignorance”). AWOL’s vocals are kinda like DJ Quik’s — clearly enunciated and unusually melodic, with multiple vocal hooks per song — but AWOL’s is a warm, balmy voice bathed in twilight dust and melancholy. He breaks his flow into verses and choruses, harmonizing with himself; he has a rapper’s cleverness, a performance artist’s penchant for neurosis-baring, a novelist’s observational skills, a comic’s sharp timing, a poet’s sigh language. You can imagine him laying around, kinda depressed, taking bong hits, watching cable but working the mute, noshing on the Corn Nuts and Jolt Cola, getting up at 9 to head down to a show, writing lyrics late, late at night when it’s slipping toward sunup. He’s struggling to understand and control his own mind, humming Morrissey songs while doing the dishes. Hand through the wall once a week. Some days are full of color, some weeks are exercises in gray. “Some say I’m hard to handle/and some say I’m too cold to hold,” he mutters. “Well if you’re down/then hold your lighters up . . .”

AWOL is not the first hip-hop artist to put the down in the downbeat — remember Basehead? — but he may be the best. Souldoubt isn’t the tragi-histrionics of Ghostface Killah, or the ghetto dread of Biggie and Mobb Deep, or the fatalism of Ice-T. It’s something subtler, something just as valid, but rarely heard on mic, maybe because it has to do with revealing less-than-endearing characteristics: overintrospection, depression, self-loathing, existential angst, weakness. Every time he cries (and chuckles) over spilt milk instead of spilt blood, AWOL is not only making deeply personal art, he’s blowing out hip-hop’s shriveled limits, making it more real, broader, more expressive. Which is exactly what hip-hop needs right now — as he sez on “Agony,” “I don’t want them to call it Technicolor/when it’s only shades of red.”

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