Listening to Dilated Peoples in 2014 is strange, not just because so much has happened to the group’s three members — Evidence, DJ Babu, and Rakaa Iriscience — since 2006’s 20/20, but because rap’s underground scene has since been blotted out by the Internet’s omnipresence. That’s not to say that underground rap doesn’t still exist; it’s just that it’s no longer subterranean or counterculture. It is merely another subsect of niche music logged in a data bank somewhere, waiting to be retrieved by anyone. You don’t have to dig in a crate to find Dilated Peoples anymore; they’re here with all the other rappers. The group’s 2000 debut, The Platform, is on Spotify. Rhymesayers founders Atmosphere, meanwhile, made a song called “Kanye West”. Jake One has a production credit on the last Drake album. Pusha T, Chali 2na, and Freddie Gibbs are all represented by the same creative studio, Decon. When I first listened to “Good As Gone” on the web, I was told (by an algorithm) that I might also like Rae Sremmurd’s “No Flex Zone”. Whereas the underground once operated as a noncommercial entity in its own micro universe, exempt from mainstream machinations, it is now just like everything else: online and at your fingertips.
Dilated Peoples never got that memo. Directors of Photography, their fifth studio album and first on Rhymesayers, shows a rebellious disregard for the changing tides. It seeks to preserve the clichéd parameters of what it means to be “underground,” a veritable how-to manual on alt rap. That said, the LP finds itself awkwardly shuffling back and forth between crisp glimpses into fringe rap minimalism and clunky reminders of conservative rap’s more grating habits. But, despite that fact and its somewhat shoddily assembled camerawork concept, Directors of Photography is refreshing in its refusal to submit to the web-driven contemporary rap market’s blurred margins.
If you need any further proof that Directors of Photography is trapped in a temporal loop, consult the Brother Ali and Dice Raw name-drops in its first minute. From that moment forward, it’s business as usual, just with tighter beats and knottier wordplay than on past releases. The album knows what it is, and at no point does it try to be anything else. It simply decides to double down on old tropes for solidarity’s sake. Evidence’s deadpan delivery is perfect for what feels like rote recitations from a rap handbook, and together with Rakaa’s even-tempered disposition, the two trade bars that are as sharp as any you’ll hear this year. “Let Your Thoughts Fly Away” and “Cut My Teeth” showcase alliteration, internal rhyme, and a nostalgic brand of multisyllabic scheming. “Hazmat, clutching their chests like asthmatics/ For mathematics, a natural dash of black magic,” Rakaa spits on “Good As Gone”, and that kind of craftsmanship boosts the album’s staying power.
Directors of Photography sounds the way you might expect it to, just by looking at the production credits or knowing anything about alt rap. Evidence and DJ Babu are joined by The Alchemist, DJ Premier, Oh No, Jake One, Diamond D, and 9th Wonder in configuring an album that earnestly strives to be authentically hip-hop. It’s a respectable effort, even when it grows routine. When most accurately staging as a doppelganger of rap’s boom-bap essence, Directors of Photography is stimulating in the zest with which it tries to recapture the zeitgeist of classic underground culture. The Aloe Blacc assist “Show Me the Way” loops a heavy drum kick and layers it with two different piano riffs. “The Dark Room” distorts wailing vocals to create a shadowy sense of depth. “Directors” is Evidence channeling his good buddy Alchemist with eerie piano keys. Every producer must’ve understood the purpose of this album: preserving “real” rap, the rap that purists fawn over. Directors of Photography, both in its lyricism and musicality, upholds traditional rap principles with a commitment to the underground as an abstract ideal.
On the album’s closer, “The Bigger Picture”, Evidence transparently describes his loyalty to this intangible hub from which he and so many other acts sprung: “Some move to the future, others livin’ it slow/ Old tunes tryna find where the memories flow.” Hip-hop music is continuing to push forward into the avant-garde, leading the charge with cutting edge sounds that stray further and further from the norm with each passing year. No matter how experimental the world gets, though, Dilated Peoples aren’t budging.
Essential Tracks: “Good As Gone”, “Let Your Thoughts Fly Away”, and “Directors”