We are now five years on from the dissolution of cLOUDDEAD, which makes it as good a time as any to reflect and take stock of the group. Like hip hop’s own Velvet Underground, cLOUDDEAD didn’t exactly take over the airwaves during their existence, and similarly, though its individual artists have had better commercial success with their ensuing projects, none of them are household names…yet. Continuing the parallels, let’s pretend Yoni Wolf is the Lou Reed here, focusing on his poppier and poppier Why?, Anticon’s best hopes for crossover, likely only a few steps away from his Transformer. Which would make Doseone the John Cale figure, endlessly collaborating and pursuing the avant garde ground he was always rooted in, with projects like 13&God and Subtle. But like Cale, he’s got a bit of a pop edge too, filtered as it is through continuous experimentation; so as Yoni Wolf finally swings once and all for the mainstream fences with this year’s Eskimo Snow, it isn’t too surprising that Doseone has made a similar if, significantly more subtle, attempt at the same with Themselves’ return from the dead, Crownsdown.
Beginning with one of the only tracks in all of Doseone’s catalog that could be called hip hop without needing any kind of disclaimer or seemingly contradictory preface, “Back II Burn,” Crownsdown initially seems like it’s going to be a massive disappointment. Jel’s beat is still sort of strange, but in a beefed-up Wu-Tang kind of way; the drums shudder and twitch even as they thunder, but there are strings, and an obvious vocal sample shouting “Guess who’s back?!” It’s the type of stereotypical hip hop grandstanding you’ve learned not to expect from Anticon. And luckily, it’s a dead end.
“Oversleeping” follows, a ferocious, screechy, self-destructing track that appeared earlier this year in lesser form on the freeHoudini mixtape. That mixtape hinted that the upcoming Themselves release would find Doseone in fiercer form than normal, his flow taking the spitting acid descriptor seriously, fast but clear, aggressive without seeming staged. This is a Doseone taking peers to task for giving up on pushing boundaries, and a Doseone who doesn’t give a shit about diminishing his reputation for being confrontational and hostile. And what follows are three more perfect tracks: “The Mark,” a hypnotic return to the ground mined by Doseone during his partnership with Boom Bip, “Gangsters of Disbelief,” an 8 bit barnstormer and “Daxstrong-” beautiful evidence of Doseone’s ability to provide truly transcendent hip hop.
And it’s all nearly derailed by the truly atrocious “You Ain’t It,” a case for Auto-Tune being the devil if there ever was one. This debacle features a messy beat of toy store samples and Doseone’s overly sped-up verses, sitting uncomfortably alongside the Auto-Tuned-to-death hook. As it is, it significantly detracts from the effect the fantastic “Roman Is As Roman Does” should have, making that track’s quixotic backing vocals initially provoke fear in the suspicion they’ll head towards the Auto-Tune graveyard as well.
Though “Roman Is As Roman Does” is the last truly great moment on the album, it and the four tracks preceding “You Ain’t It” go a long way towards making this album a necessary purchase for those intimidated by Doseone’s admittedly stuffed back catalog. Those five numbers are clear representations of everything that makes Doseone such an exciting performer, even though they leave out many of the things that make him so difficult for some listeners to get behind. Jel’s production is a big component of this, the chemistry between the two only growing since their several years developing Subtle into the vital group it is today. Maybe Crownsdown is just palette cleanser the duo needed to make before going back to rewriting the boundaries of hip hop once more.