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Cex - Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed

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Artist: Cex

Album: Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed

Label: Tigerbeat6

Review date: Oct. 14, 2002

Out From Behind the Laptop

Until now, Baltimore youngster Cex (aka Rjyan Kidwell) has made his name by making instrumental, melodic, beat-heavy electronic music. His last album, 2001’s Oops…I Did it Again (Tigerbeat6) was all fairly run-of-the-mill poppy Warp-style dance music, but it succeeded fantastically (where few others have) by keeping its songs catchy, concise and light-hearted. Tempered with a few hilarious skits and gross-out goofy cover art, it charmed while so many others of its ilk bored. Cex’s live shows, however, featured a rapping Cex as their focal point, and were based around brand new beats and tunes. Except for some familiar tones and melodic qualities, it was unlike anything found on any of his albums, and although it was a bit dopey, it was hard not to be charmed, or at least intrigued by it.

Nothing makes easier fodder for haters than white rappers. Tall, Dark and Handcuffed, the latest album by Cex and his first featuring vocals, will probably be no exception from the hate. It’s too bad, for to simply write it off as sounding overly geeky, or suburban, or, well, white, is an easy, but misguided temptation. TD&H (hip) hops along the edge of mockery, but Cex’s self-effacement is candidly directed towards his own shortcomings and inside jokes, while avoiding big-picture commentary. It certainly out-emos Anticon, but is not nearly as sappy as its rock counterparts. Think back to the insultingly mocking nature of MC Paul Barman, or the faux grit of V-Ice, and realize, as Cex has done here, that they were both horrible.

At his most sincere, Cex is witty, wordy, and engaging. He flashes his juvenile cleverness, calling himself the “Pain in the ass for which there is no preparation” and warning that he “ain’t the type of lyricist whose big boring words will pass through your system undigested like corn kernels”. “Intangible”, the most biographical song of the album, finds a vulnerable and confused 20-year old (presumably Kidwell himself) venting and bragging, anchored by the possibly endearing chorus of “Intangible man / Can’t touch him can’t do it / Half man half nothing / Hardly there and barely human / Never been punched / Never been fucked / Never been kissed / Hard pressed for evidence he even exists.” While it’s not as profound as something that could be found on, say, a Sage Francis album, it’s refreshing to hear an MC being candid about his own confidence (since we sure as shit don’t buy it coming from Eminem).

There are weak moments, and most come during lapses in which Kidwell slips into faux-ghetto poses; pronouncing words with urban affections, adding superfluous “fuck”s or “ain’t”s, and occasionally blurring his witty baiting with real hard shit-talking. It’s these moments that will piss off the heads, which is too bad since there are relatively few.

Cex’s transition from instrumentalist to vocalist is a somewhat awkward one, since the focus shifts away from his excellent beats ‘n tones to his somewhat weak voice. Indeed, few electronic musicians have dared to poke their heads out from above their laptops, so if nothing else, Cex’s adventure is an admirably bold one. Here his beats are a bit quicker and a bit simpler than on previous efforts, and his melodies are a bit less engaging – all of which is appropriate given the addition of vocals. Occasional record scratching sounds a bit out of place (even given that it’s a hip hop album), and there are a few moments when beats seem to drag where they could take off. However, Cex is clearly a laptop whiz, and his tones are beginning develop a unique and recognizable quality, an excellent sign given the decreasingly derivative sound of his albums.

The album’s peak comes late, with a one-two punch of its funniest skit, “Jeremy Devine,” followed by its best song, “Ghost Rider.” The skit goofily mocks a similar one by Eminem (the anti-Cex), in which Temporary Residence label boss Jeremy Devine berates Cex for the nature of his album, telling him that “Aquarius Records told me to shove this record up my ass” (which they eventually and actually did), and even including a reference to a past Cex skit. “Ghost Rider” a tribute to biking, contains the most fully developed production, the catchiest chorus, and is archetypal of Kidwell’s lyrical tendency to dramatize the inane, or at least the simple. With sliding bass chords, skipping and varying beats, and ethereal tones “Ghost Rider” is one of the few songs on T, D & H that could probably hold up as well without its vocals. Kidwell’s voice is at its most confident, but doesn’t sound forced or awkward. The repeated chant of “Get on your bikes / And ride!” is a cheesy conclusion, but it is humorously tempered by an eerie instrumental outro-lude.

It’s not surprising that “Jeremy Devine’s” prediction came true. Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed is certainly not highbrow hip hop, but Cex tries, and often succeeds, to keep it as real as he can. It’s not as essential as Oops..., nor is it likely to make much noise in the hip hop community, but it’s an admirable, and at times quite enjoyable effort from an already charismatic character.

By Sam Hunt

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