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The Alchemist - Russian Roulette

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Artist: The Alchemist

Album: Russian Roulette

Label: Decon

Review date: Oct. 12, 2012

The Alchemist is a widely traveled, justly venerated hip-hop producer whose trademark sound, when you try to identify one, doesn’t seem to have a trademark at all. He does gloopy thug-soul numbers and heartless robo-bangers, matter-of-fact New York gangster stomps and blunted West Coast sidewinders, all with equal finesse. He’s versatile, in a word, which is almost certainly why he’s quietly stuck around for so long without courting anything resembling popular scorn.

On its own, at least, Russian Roulette isn’t about versatility. It does suggest as much on a career level, if you take it in concert with Alchemist’s various large-scale collaborations over the last few years – with Prodigy, Curren$y, Domo Genesis, Oh No, Eminem, you name it – but what’s striking within it is how coolly it commits to a single groove in the midst of, even in spite of, a totally exhausting who’s who of rappers. The rappers mostly come from the charismatically gruff, slightly menacing end of the spectrum; the groove, an album-long mix that leans heavily on Rocky samples, conjures a turtlenecks-and-tailfins sort of late-’70s world where rap, such as it is here, doesn’t really exist yet.

One outcome of this mismatch, of course, would be for an unexpected equilibrium to settle over the whole thing; another would be for the whole thing to be awful. Neither happens here, which somehow feels like the most interesting possible route: Alchemist doesn’t appear to be making beats for his guests, nor do they spend much time rhyming on message, as it were – the ones who stand out are the ones who always stand out, the Bronsons and the Marcianos and the eXquires of the world. For his part, he’s just blithely constructing a Madlib-style sample collage, using rap verses and movie samples alike as set pieces, being exactly as self-effacing as he feels like being. Not being versatile, if you like, because why should he?

That said, that’s a pretty abstract quality to appreciate; for most of its runtime, highlights included, the album is mired in the same self-drowning-out that afflicts the best of its ilk. There’s a point toward the end, right around the three-minute mostly-instrumental “Moscow” suite, where the mix feels suddenly refreshed to be unencumbered by rappers and canned dialogue: this is either where Russian Roulette hits its stride or where you realize it’s not meant to have one.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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