I haven’t been a fan of rap-rock since I became a serious fan of hip hop. Because once you’ve heard Pharoahe Monch, Fred Durst just doesn’t cut the mustard. That’s not to say that I don’t still listen to some dunces like 50 Cent and co., but at least I know those guys have paid their dues, so to speak, and earned their rapping stripes along the way, unlike the white boys who learn to play one guitar lick and mimic rappers successfully enough to get a deal and a number one record (“You’re my butterfly, sugar, baby” â€“ you know what I’m talking about).
These days, though, the hybrids seem to be coming from the other direction and pushing their way in through the rap door. Patrick Stump may have stumbled upon the Gym Class Heroes, but they were already a legit hip hop outfit equipped with a stellar front man in Travis McCoy, who could easily embark on a solo career with his mic skills. The latest group to try out the balancing act is The Knux, a duo of brothers Krispy Kream and Rah Al Millio who somehow found their path to stardom out of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans residents have a fondness for chunky guitars and retro, lo-fi sounds, putting them in the sonic company of groups like The Strokes and The White Stripes. Don’t worry, though. That comparison only goes so far, because in addition to playing all the instruments for their album, these guys can rap their asses off. Yeah, they like their guitars with distortion and are as clever with riff writing as rhyme writing, but they are MCs first and foremost, and I have no trouble classifying them as a hip hop act that happens to have some rock sensibilities.
You should be forewarned that Krispy and Al have the ability to write some catchy-ass tunes on multiple levels, and you might not be able to keep them out of your head even if you try. For one, they are great at penning clever hooks and peppering their verses with memorable one-liners, as Krispy does on the single “Cappuccino” when he tells a stuck-up girl, “I’d rather beat my Jimmy like Iovine.” You gotta love that coming from an Interscope artist. Another nagging tendency they have is their habit of coming up with guitar melodies which, looped for the duration of a song, wedge themselves in your head and refuse to leave for extended periods. Listen to “Daddy’s Little Girl” and tell me you can shake that little lick. Go ahead, I dare you. You might not love the execution of the Paris Hilton impersonation, but you can’t deny its pop genius.
I’ve already discussed their rock lineage, but The Knux have some pretty impressive rap resemblances as well, the most obvious being Outkast. It helps that Al is a dead ringer for early Big Boi, in both his voice and cadences, but it goes further than that. The Knux share the ATLiens’ penchant for musical experimentation, and their hook singing would sound right at home alongside “Elevators (Me And You)” or “Ms. Jackson.” For his part, Krispy occasionally sounds like E-40, especially when he gets to rattling off syllables at a machine gun clip. Throw in some southern swag and Native Tongues earthiness, and you have a rap group that is well situated within hip hop traditions while extending those sacred sounds to new horizons.
It’s not a perfect debut by any means, but the innovations that do work make the slip-ups much more palatable. The album comes racing out of the starting blocks, repeatedly achieving that elusive balance between genres with songs like the sleepy bouncer “Fire (Put it in the Air)” and the dancehall bop of “Bang! Bang!” Around the middle of the album, they go on a bit of an electro kick with mixed results. The downtempo grind of “Shine Again” succeeds due to hypnotic sound effects and a strong narrative focus, but others like “Life In A Cage (Electric)” don’t fare quite so well. The whole affair also runs a little long, and you can’t help but believe they would have done well to cut the track list down to 14 or 15 from the hefty 17 they decided on. By the time you get to the finale “Lights Camera Action” you’ll probably be wishing for nothing more than to go back to the beginning to relive the early high points, which is not much in the way of a condemnation, actually.
I rarely have anything positive to say about Rolling Stone magazine’s coverage of rap music, but in including “Remind Me in 3 Days” as one of only four hip hop albums on their year-end list (which runs 50 deep, by the way), they finally got one right. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that The Knux are as fluent with the guitar as they are with the mic, but credit where it’s due for recognizing an album that escaped the attention of many a hip hop head. This is the good side of experimentation, producing a mash-up that sounds natural rather than forced and is completely within the musical range of these two talented brothers. The music is kept grounded throughout by the guitar work and some exceptional sung hooks, but the MCs’ ability to craft and deliver backpacker quality lyricism is what holds the whole thing together. Take it from a cross-genre skeptic: these guys are worth checking out.