Kool Keith doesn’t feel like a human being. It would be hard to with a career spanning more characters than David Bowie’s (including, if you didn’t consider it, Kool Keth), and retrofuturist producer L’Orange has added a Buck Rogers phantom to the list with their new collaborative album Time? Astonishing! It’s surprising that these highly compatible artists hadn’t stumbled into each other before – a sensation I call the Reese’s Effect – but time is astonishing, after all - perhaps too astonishing. You can get dizzy from the, as Mosi Reeves describes it, “vague metaphysics and B-movie ramblings about space travel.”
Part of this is that Time? Astonishing!, unlike L’Orange’s previous collab with Jeremiah Jae, The Night Took Us In Like Family, is that his production is less concretized. As if trying to match Kool Keith’s zany (“coastin’ downhill slower/cuttin’ like the lawnmower) and R3 that-doesn’t-mean-anything (“the traveler/the process of continuation to move”) lyricism. Loops are prominent and placeless, a ghostly voice sampled, menacingly, as on “Dr. Bipolar,” or as light and spacy behind MC Paul Barman’s storybook rapping on “Suspended Animation.” Even on beat-driven tracks (“The Green Ray” or “Meanwhile, Back Home”) small distortions turn a grippable backbeat into a fantastical one (a trumpet stumbling down a minor scale, and muzak piano, respectively). Those less familiar with early L’Orange might find Time? Astonishing! a strange shift, but it’s all there in The Manipulation EP and the aptly titled Old Soul.
This is how L’Orange and Kool Keith play off each other. Together they’ve crafted a third identity, a schizophrenic flash freeze of the ‘40s. But as with schizophrenia, while difficult to broach, it’s rewarding. Reeves' description, while reasonable, is slightly off. The album is bounded more by abstraction than vagueness; from Keith's halting, jabbing rhythm and his precise internal rhyming, it’s clear he’s influenced by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip (A.K.A. “The Abstract Poet”). If anything, Time? Astonishing! is a future shock that bends toward being an ode, and attempt to return to a less “ever contracting earth” (“The Wanderer”): which is why Buck Rogers is regularly sampled.
Explicitly, it’s an environmentalist’s album. Implicitly, in the context of race relations and hashtag activism, Kool Keith is looking for the “Central Space Port” to go back to. Sadly (with no small irony), the final track announcing that attempted return, “Days I Used To Know,” bleeds perfectly into the title track, forming that very distance from the center.
The main drawback from the avant-garde is typically a lack of approachability. Of course, that’s not the point. The point is to turn art into meaning that retains its value as entertainment. It’s like listening for your favorite song through static, and it takes an incredible focus to balance static and song to turn a great concept into an equally great album. L’Orange and Kool Keith almost make it. Not quite.