In hip hop, five years is a long, long stretch. Take five years off, and you’d better come back hard. Mostly because the stakes are so high, By the Throat, the would-be comeback from prodigal Minneapolis duo Eyedea & Abilities, has to rate as a disappointment, despite interesting intentions and a few sublime moments.
No one has brought more shameless sensitivity to the hyper-masculine rap game than the Rhymesayers collective. But even compared to Atmosphere at its most bleak, Eyedeas plays a serious heavy here, without seeming particularly aware of how he’s coming off. The opening cut, “Hay Fever,” is about death, and things don’t get any brighter. (On “Spin Cycle,” which could be an electro-fied Catherine Wheel deep cut, our host is “All grown up / Still tryin’ to find my way home… I’m lonely / But everyone is lonely / So I know at least I’m not alone.” Compared to this high-school verse, Slug sounds almost cocky.) Since his last collab with DJ Abilities, Eyedeas has fronted Carbon Carousel, a rock band, and the experience has changed him completely. Once a seemingly fearless battle-rapper, he returns as more of an Ice-T-style intoner, half-singing along with fuzzy, almost grungy guitar riffs and skittering electronics.
For better or worse, Abilities goes with the new flow, constructing the predictably dark tracks without letting much beat science interfere with things. On some tracks (particularly on the latter half of the half-hour album), he sounds as though he trying something new and getting off on it. (The bizarre white-noise interlude “Forgive Me For My Synapses” is a disorienting thrill, and begins a string of some of the most brilliantly counterintuitive grunge-funk committed to wax in that hybrid’s depressing history, but it arrives too late in the game.) On others (most of them unfortunately frontloaded), he sounds like he’s phoning it in. He never sounds particularly comfortable.
In a kinder world, By the Throat would be an experimental curio, the sound of two hip hop scenesters busting conventions with ample guts and charming naiveté. But after five years … really?