Idle Warship is the electro rap group captained by rapper Talib Kweli. With first mates Res and Graph Nobel, the trio have been making music together for years. As their first mixtape, Party Robots sees the group striking out toward new frontiers. While the band is all about bringing the noise, there’s an old school quality to the music: lots of old synthy sounds and vocoders without a lot of the standard electro things like repetitive beats that spiral into massive breakdowns.
“Metro” is a great example of that. The Berlin original is already frantic and energetic like the movement of a bullet train, but they haven’t gone overboard with it, instead gradually shifting things up to create an even more kinetic experience. “World on Wheels” musically is like faintly techno old school Afrika Bambaataa. Plus, Saul Williams’ bit adds an angry club version of some David Byrne sing-screaming. “The Warship” blends parts of Edwin Starr’s “War” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” into a militaristic call for action that commands head-nodding galore. It’s a completely older Kweli song without a lot of the dance and electro tinge to it. “Steady”, which samples the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”, is a impactful example of the sonic representation of their aim; it’s spun from a pretty dark song into something sort of elegant and sinister and mechanical before winding down, complete with the record skipping off into oblivion.
Kweli has always been known as a conscientious rapper, but with this album he learns to have fun while still being insightful and having depth. “Screamin’ “, featuring MC Chris, is a party record about abandoning reason for a hedonistic club experience; having a king of nerdcore brings a new perspective to the closed-off nature and social standards of hip-hop in general. Same goes for “Girls on the Dancefloor”. It’s less of a condemnation and more of this darkly poetic, intriguing look at the whole culture in the same way as American Psycho glorifies the yuppie culture; there’s an underlining wave of faceless and meaningless abandonment. “Party Robots” is another example of the dual existence; all about having fun and being a slave to the rhythm, it’s also a critique on the mindlessness of much of the club/party scene.
Worry not, though; despite the depth, the album’s full of lots of numbers that rumble with the sound of Prince-tastic beats processed through computers and the menacing movement of heavy drums. “LA Famous” is a banging example of the kind of disgusted worship of all that is shiny and fake. It’s built like some top 40 female pop goddess number with a posh synth line and lots of buzzing noises and predictably funky drum machine. It’s hard to tell if it’s a legitimate satire or celebration. Graph Nobel’s much more intense and real and less of the dainty pop queen that is portrayed in the song. It totally blurs the line of their insightfulness and total abandonment.
And speaking of Nobel, consider her a wellspring of female fury from here on out. “Bedroom Lights” shifts between a vocodered Nobel calling out from the dark to her Wonder Woman-esque accusations, separated by Kweli’s verse of a gameless man over a chirp-heavy DIY bedroom beat ripped from an arcade machine. “Fyah” is arguably where the voice of Nobel really shines. It’s the utter sweetness and vulnerability and emotional richness that would make Gwen Stefani circa Tragic Kingdom feel like weeping. But she also shows a tougher side with a verse in “Screamin’ “. It’s a straight-up rhythmic assault that flows like a streetwise seraphim. Undoubtedly part of what lets her step up is having to match wits with a legend like Kweli. One of the more interesting ways Nobel stands out is the seemingly insecure touches. “Black Snake Moan” finds the man and woman in a duel of overt sexiness. Graph totally wins by thrusting her heels into the ground and pulling him into her perverted den: a new spin on the whole gender dynamic of hip-hop, set to the sounds of some old roadhouse blues explosion.
While the idea of Kweli moving toward the clubbin’ direction may be a sign of the apocalypse for some, this is an album of balancing acts and of mining the past and braving the future.