Sharps & flats

Kool Keith is an alien. Kool Keith is Elvis. But why isn't the rapper weird anymore?

By Alex Pappademas
Published August 20, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, Kool Keith has always denied that he's insane. But it's obvious he's not running the same programs as your average MC. When he raps, there's no telling what you're going to get -- dope rhymes, for sure, but also medical-journal extracts, magnetic poetry, Velveeta Jones pimp-slaps, R&B falsettos, (George) Clintonian cartoon scatology or strings of numerals that sound like next week's Martian stock prices. He's like the guy in the schoolyard insult duel who spits out head-scratchers like "Ya mom so ugly, they push her face in the dough to make gorilla cookies," leaving his enemies speechless with next-level nonsense.

"Lost in Space/Black Elvis" is Keith's star turn, self-produced but released by a major label, packed with music-industry jokes and rants about the price of fame. But it's not a pop move by any yardstick -- Keith's last album featured a song called "No Chorus," and this whole record could be called "No Hook." Aside from the improbably lovely almost-ballad "Supergalactic Lover" (Keith as a project-dwelling ladies' man driving a "monkey-green ragtop Seville") and the funky "Master of the Game" (featuring the vocodered lilt of late, legendary Zapp frontman Roger Troutman, the missing link between P-Funk and Daft Punk), these songs are as unmemorable as the cash-in junk Keith cut with indie-poppers Getaway Cruiser.


The trouble is, Keith's a brilliant rapper but a merely adequate producer. His crowning achievements, from the 1996 don't-call-it-a-comeback-album "Dr. Octagon" to this year's blood-splattered, "American Psycho"-in-the-PJs excursion "First Come First Served," have been collaborations with like-minded sickos. Notoriously difficult in the studio, Keith's endured acrimonious public divorces from several producers, including Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (whose haunted-asylum beats for "Octagon" demonstrated a knowledge of old-school Hammer horror flicks that would shame Rob Zombie) and his most recent enabler, "First Come" beatmaker Kut Masta Kurt. Even a surgeon of Keith's caliber needs somebody to pass him the scalpel.

The album is split into two parts, both of which feature separate themes. The "Lost in Space" concept -- Keith lives in a world of fake-assed "Westworld" robots, so he feels like an alien -- is cool with this sci-fi nerd. But listeners who bugged out to the old stuff will recognize these cyber-rhymes as standard deviation, minus the kinky/disturbing gynecological subtext of "Octagon." And for a base pimp narrative, the "Black Elvis" half can't match the filthy-mack-nastiness of Keith's 1997 indie album "Sex Style."

That record, practically a long-form phone-sex wank set to wax, overflowed with power-drunk playerism and fantasies so lewd you could practically smell them. Keith held a cracked mirror up to "real rap," desperate to shatter the genre's tough-guy perma-sneer, to rub the music's face in its own bullshit. Like Prince Paul's "comedy" album "Psychoanalysis," it got less funny and more tragic every time you played it, a painfully disillusioned parody fueled by the frustration that drives the best satirists. (Paul widened that angst into the hip-hopera "Prince Among Thieves," on which Keith cameoed as "Crazy Lou," "an ex-Marine captain who got discharged for sexual misconduct with a deadly weapon.")


On the brilliantly oblique Octagon single "Blue Flowers," a sampled voice implored "Let me show you something," over and over, and after we submitted to the request, Keith kicked rhymes about voodoo curses, health insurance, Evel Knievel-- the night-blooming underbrush of a perv poet's brain. On "Lost in Space," Keith's still got the skills -- a dis like "You are the monsters of the original Mr. Softee ice cream trucks" shut me right up -- but he can't remember what he used to do with 'em, and ends up coming off like just another mad rapper bending your ear at the bar: "Hey -- remember me? I used to be weird."

Alex Pappademas

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