As genres grow, so too do their offshoots. There's too many sub-categories to name that grew out of the original Rock 'n' Roll and Rhythm and Blues. The same is starting to happen in hip-hop where we see a developing conglomerate of Alt-rock, Funk, Techno and whatever else, that, for lack of a better term, could be called Alternative Hip Hop. Two particularly daring albums released in the past year, Common's Electric Circus and Andre 3000's The Love Below, are prime examples that hip hop can no longer be confined to one space. One might just as readily mistake any given track from one of those albums for a Beck or Prince song.
Variable Unit takes this concept even one step further by depriving Cold Flow's eclectic tracks of any vocals whatsoever. The results, largely dependent upon the listener's tastes, are varied. Tracks like the multiple build-up and denouements on the elevator-music "Floating Butterfly in the River Nile," and the engaging horn on "Court of Chords," featuring Sonny Fortune, demand the listener's attention. The scaly, funky bass and popping percussion on the aptly-titled "Shedding Skins" is just begging for an ill MC to spit over, though it never happens. The sonic echoes of the eerie "Hare and the Taurus" has its moments simply in anticipation of what will come next.
The weaker tracks, like the upbeat "Royal Jack," and the altogether dull bass notes of "Jechno" are interesting enough though seem to get in their own way. The repetition of tracks like this can get old without enough variation.
As musicians, Variable Unit seems thoroughly capable, though this album is unlikely to appeal to the majority of hip hop listeners. Many of these beats are too free and wide-ranging to support vocals of any kind, which makes them worthy additions to a compilation of alternative-style hip hop tracks, but ultimately, probably not what the average head is looking for. For those who enjoy something a bit outside the box, this is certainly worth a listen as most of the tracks are relaxing, smoothed-out productions but bring enough to the table to challenge one's ear. Cold Flow is undoubtedly a worthwhile addition to the ever-expanding genres of hip hop music.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: November 18, 2003