Seven years is a small eternity in rap time, enough time to make Fluorescent Black, the new one from NYC’s most forbiddingly brainy turn-of-the-century indie-rap quartet, sound less like a distinguished comeback than an urgent, hungry born-again debut. It’s by far the smartest, most expansive and most challenging rap record of the year, as ambitious as Fear of a Black Planet, just as relentlessly inventive, and, after its own fashion, just as broadly drawn.
Anyone who fondly recalls Anti-Pop’s smarter-than-thou electro-funk past will still find much to love. The raps are as dizzyingly fast and cryptic as ever. The compressed fables (“Shine”) and dented hooks (“Apparently”) will take a few spins to “get.” If the whole thing, at first brush, seems like a high-speed series of what-the-fuck moments, you’re right on schedule.
Listen deep, however, and Fluorescent Black becomes a pure battle-rap record, at once menacing and playful, with a righteous sense of humor, complete with boasts, threats, and a King Kong metaphor. The raps are spit matter-of-factly against even the most experimental tracks. Beans remains the most accessible MC in the group, but Priest and M. Sayyid sound much more involved than before, showing off their enviable skills as much as their weirdness or scholarship.“New Jack Exterminator” and “C Thur U” prove that a good diss track doesn’t have to be stupid to be thrillingly ridiculous.
Even at its most abstract and cerebral, Fluorescent Black is made irresistibly catchy by its wildly eclectic tracks (courtesy of unsung genius Earl Blaze), at once the smartest and most ig’nant windshield-rattlers out. This is hardly “anti-pop,” closer to “pan-pop,” experimenting with everything from snap-rap to machine-gun funk to art-metal, the perfect tribute to this no-secrets, nothing-scared moment in history, the whole thing made solid by ice-cold intelligence and paranoia.