Album Review – Themselves: Crownsdown

Oakland hip hop veterans Themselves (Doseone and Jel) can usually be found on the more adventurous side of their genre, twisting, spinning, pushing, and at times ignoring hip hop’s limits while still keeping its roots and principles somewhere nearby. Their new record, Crownsdown, is Themselves’ attempt at creating 10 tracks that each represent an essential hip hop theme, i.e. the diss track, the dj track, the story rap, etc. Not an easy task, especially considering how muddied and forgotten the origins of hip hop have become to the common listener. For a genre that can at times seem to be stuck in its formula, Themselves bring new ideas and energy to hip hop with a respectable and well informed nod to where it came from.

Doseone’s (emcee for Themselves) style has evolved over the years, at times being a slow loose screeching mix of talking and singing and other times a sharp syncopated onslaught of rhythms and rhyme schemes. On Crownsdown Doseone raps with incredible syncopation, his voice and the drums seem locked on every syllable. The few times when he strays away from the beat only make you listen closer, paying attention to his words as he hangs them loosely around the rhythm. His lyrics are challenging and even sometimes hard to understand at first listen. Eventually, with a little effort, the random rapid-fire syllables begin to align and fall into place and a rich and complex world of poetry unfolds as you listen. The best example of this is probably the “dj track” “Skinning the Drum”. Doesone takes a concept that has been around since hip hop’s inception, an emcee given his dj props, and does something completely unique with it. After a chorus of cut up samples via Jel, Doesone begins “You CDJ press play on the mix nah/ I’m drum with no sticks till calloused of hand/ Blowing the glow of these computer can bands and step sequencer Rembrandts/ All me me me, myself, and an Ipod/ Getting jive on the hi hat and volume knob”. The song then ends with what is probably the best 4 lines of the record, “There’s a fine line between who invented it and who was wrenching it/ Who infected it and who protected it/ Who perfected it and who collected it, who came correct with it/ It aint your bag so why drag it.”

The beats for Crownsdown are crafted by Anticon and weird hip hop veteran Jel. His style has also evolved over the years becoming more complex and incorporating a vast amount of new influences and sounds. The beats on Crownsdown are much more electro than the Anticon beats of years ago. Trading in the slow string samples, bass lines, and compressed drums for synthesizers and up-tempo break beats that fit the current musical context well without sounding clichéd. Jel’s beats have layers of complexity and subtle nuances that aren’t found in a lot of modern hip hop production while still having an incredible ear for drum breaks and grooves. Although not the highlight of Crownsdown, Jel’s beats are solid and perfect for Doseone’s delivery and style.

Crownsdown is not, and probably wasn’t intended to be, a genre changing record. Hip hop is still stuck in its current state for who knows how long and no amount of genuinely creative and unique records is going to change that anytime soon. Underground and/or alternative artists will just have to keep challenging themselves and their listeners and be happy with what success comes from that. Themselves are a shining example of this type of artist and hopefully will continue to pull hip hop apart and put it back together for the love of it.

-Glenn Jackson