By Chet Betz | 22 April 2009
If you’d like to enjoy this new Illogic album I’d advise you to stop reading this review, ignore that album cover up above, and find some way to listen to the music that involves you never having to look at said cover. Just imagine your own cover, something that fits the title of Diabolical Fun, like a Rubik’s cube splayed into something Escher-y or, hell, a painting in the style of Norman Rockwell where a family of four plays badminton with a hand grenade. Just don’t imagine a cover where Illogic’s crotch sulks at you from the cushy depths of a white armchair that sits in front of a giant cartoon boom-box, speakers erect, like a tacky underground rap version of Cremaster (which is plenty tacky enough on its own). Just don’t imagine that. P.S. Oh, I get it now, the boom-box is a Rubik’s cube. Um.
Eye-gouging visual impact aside, that nasty bitch of a cover—while far worse than the music it so gracelessly puts a face on—does speak to the fundamental problem with Diabolical Fun: it wants to be fun when it totally isn’t. It’s like Illogic’s trying to throw us a party but, if his mug on the cover is any indication, he’s having even less fun than we are. And I’m not sure where “diabolical” fits into the equation beyond it being asserted on the title track that, yes, “this is diabolical fun.” I had a ridiculous friend in college that, whenever we’d end up at a dead party, would mime revelry and yell things like “whee, we’re at a party, what fun we’re having!” or act like he was trying to speak/hear over the loud party music that wasn’t actually playing. This record’s kind of like that friend except unaware and even more unfunny.
I appreciate that Illogic’s trying to show us a different side of himself as an artist but it’s kind of like Susan Boyle singing Les Mis—that shit’s incredibly affecting and yet I don’t really want to see her sing much else, knamean. On 2004’s Celestial Clockwork Illogic elliptically detailed his spiritual ascent from dark times with a passion that had me certain he was one of this genre’s most convincing though abstract bleeding hearts. On Diabolical Fun it’s less poetry, more generic rap; hard to tell why Illogic would stretch himself away from that one thing he does better than his peers. There’s a mild cheese factor here that gets multiplied exponentially any time you forget not to look at the front of the CD, and you don’t have to look much farther than the song titles on the back to see Illogic applying his talents to concepts slim or non-existent: “What’s My Name,” “What Happened,” “I Know You,” “Right Here”...did dude just wake up from a coma? The tracks become fairly indistinguishable; a jam like “Let’s Go” is meant to incite parties, I’m sure; “I Know You” and “Right Here” are on some sort of romantic tip; it all starts to blend together in the hands of Illogic, to whom all of it is kind of alien. Even though—or perhaps because—he’s backed by some hot beats.
Besides that fucking gross cover the other thing that had been killing my pre-release appetite for this album, big Illogic fan though I am, was the news that Ill Poetic would be producing the whole thing. Not in love with their collaboration on Illogic’s Write to Death 2 (2005) nor partial to Ill Poetic’s The World is Ours (2007)—if a wee bit encouraged by the One Bar Left EP the duo released late last year (and particularly encouraged by the stabbing string epic “Half Man Half Vicious”)—I was sure that if there would be something disappointing about this release, it’d be the beats, as nonplussed as I had felt in the past by Ill Poetic’s “soft” production. I was wrong; my disappointment’s not quite that simple. I mean, I have to hand it to Ill Poetic, at least half of these beats are pretty fly even as they lack technical polish. The opener is a vocal sample all smudged into something vaguely awesome with sound effects shooting all over the place and a rawk guitar breakdown, which melts pretty easily into the title track’s “We Will Rock You” drums and anthemic synths; a woozy horn loop joins vocal chops and lots of channel-panning on “Violent Verbiage”; it goes on.
Ill Po doesn’t hold back: he brings some heat and some nods, and while he doesn’t always execute perfectly he stuffs his tracks full of nice and/or interesting sounds. However, his beats are a bit too busy for the density of Illogic’s rhymes; the glut of activity and the up-tempos (Illogic tends to thrive in the mid) in addition to the echo thrown on the vocals create a lumpen feel that at times will leave you straining to decipher whatever the hell that clever bit was ‘bout “skinny-dipping in the lake of fire” or burning “holes in your hindsight” or something. This is less a criticism of the individual efforts involved and more a perception that these two styles don’t fully click; Ill Poetic’s beats have a fulsome brightness that would seem to work better under someone like Zero Star, another excellent Columbus rapper who’s a little more casual with his steez, or maybe a rapper like Aesop Rock with his rabidly pronounced rubbish—hey, guess which two rappers kill it on the “Let’s Go” remix. So we’re left questioning Illogic’s flow when that flow used to flow so smooth.
I mean, this same rapping that sounded brilliant while traversing the spacious caverns of Blueprint’s Celestial Clockwork beats is now rendered awkward by the intentions it shares with Ill Po’s music for something livelier, somewhat shying away from Illogic’s spoken word roots to indulge an area in which he has much less proficiency: battle raps, brags, and bangers in backpacker fashion. Even back in ’01 when Illogic was dropping a diss track as immaculate as “Stop Lyin’” from Got Lyrics?, he was doing it in a context and over a beat that was ice cold. Pretty much the only moment on Diabolical Fun where Illogic’s swag comes correct is on “Get Up or Get Down,” where the flow reduces to the kind of simple end-rhyme emphasis necessary for this alleged “fun” shit to actually be fun: “My parchment is phoenix feathers, I’m so fly / So it’s easier to keep my head to the sky.” Fortunately, this track helps comprise a sexy mid-section for the record: “Crash” sounds like how a moody deconstruction of Hov’s “Ignorant Shit” (which itself sounded like a reconstruction of Hov’s “It’s Alright”) would sound from a dude who’d dare mash-up Joe Budden with Portishead. And in case you’d question where Ill Poetic has his heart there he is rapping the first verse: “I need a resolution / Aaliyah gets the irony / Every time she’d sing that line to me I’d die.” After the assured bump of “Get Up or Get Down” Illogic and Ill Poetic enjoy the first of their record’s two moments of total synergy on “Time,” Illogic unwinding with a simple Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 scheme and Ill Po’s beat still a bit too busy but the mood so right. With a gorgeous squiggle of a horn line and the scratch-heavy outro it’s my current pick for 2009’s best fuzzy-warm jam.
Too bad the emcee and producer didn’t follow through on the one repeated lyric there: “It’s time to rebel against what we’ve become.” The next two tracks are a reversion back to nebulous corniness, “Right Here” offering up “the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon” for love and “Feel the Beat” concluding with a silk-sheets sax solo, like some lame alternate universe version of Illogic’s own “Hollow Shell (Cash Clutch).” The white armchair and Rubik’s boom-box loom large. Then, thankfully, Diabolical Fun finishes with its second moment of total synergy: deceptively high-octane, “Walk Into the Sunset” is purely the screwed wail of an electric guitar, the monstrous maw of the bass, and tinny drum programming that sounds too frightened to do anything besides shudder. It also works so well, I think, because a little more production care is spent on Illogic’s vocals, probably in respect to Illogic’s one-upping the stream-of-consciousness cipher “1,000 Whispers.” Here Illogic does what Illogic does best: incinerate the microphone with blasts of strange energy straight from his mind, fueled by a furnace deep in his chest. “Continuity criss-crossed my life line with mic time…You see, it’s no pain, no game, no name, no fame / I’m going insane / Waiting for passengers to board my thought train.” Yup, “Walk into the Sunset” is the conventional image of triumph spun on its head as a symbol for the unknown artist’s dissolution, self-expression with nothing left to do but walk alone unto its end/source.
Stellar closing track and a few highlights aside, Diabolical Fun sounds like an artist working just a little too far outside his comfort zone, trying to force his pentagonal peg into a round hole. The good news is it shouldn’t be another four or five years before we hear Illogic back in his element as he takes over for Fess and joins Blueprint in working on an imminent Greenhouse Effect album, meaning he will again be rapping over Blueprint beats, meaning shit should be chill and transplendent. And jury’s still out on whether Illogic’s better off completely avoiding this more upbeat kind of music since 8076, his collaborative project with producer Walter Rocktight, yielded a couple certifiable bangers in “Time is Coming” and “Wha’ll Out” (and now Illogic’s whispering that the indefinitely shelved 8076 LP might soon see light of day). But Diabolical Fun...I mean, even the title’s awkward, five gangly syllables in the first word stopped in their tracks by “Fun” with no rhyme, no assonance, no alliteration—the kind of shit that Illogic is typically all about. There’s little of the harmonious balance of a Celestial Clockwork or the bluntly clever wordplay of a Got Lyrics?, the arresting grit of the Off the Clock EP (2004) or the nascent earnestness and Dose One cameo of Unforeseen Shadows (2000)—or really anything to distinguish this Illogic record other than that it’s probably his worst. No, wait:
Yeah, definitely his worst.