More Old School Than New
While in retrospect turntablism was doomed to fail as a sustainable genre—there’s a “sound,” then there’s mere focus on one instrument—it didn’t help that some of the world’s best cutters untethered themselves from the skills that paid their bills for the purpose of artistic growth. Philadelphia-based producer RJD2 was touted as the next DJ Shadow with releases like Dead Ringer, then took on the challenge of playing music that sounded like the samples he used to drop. Even if there are still instruments and live vocals creating part of the illusion, More Is Than Isn’t at least feels like his first steps back into the ones and twos since before 2007.
It really boils down to this album’s instrumentals sounding like they were made with hands on buttons, faders and vinyl. The MPC triggers and bass plucks of songs like “Milk Tooth,” the pseudo-junglist “Winter Isn’t Coming” and “Behold, Numbers!” hang on to each other by all-too-human threads. “Her Majesty’s Socialist Request” is a playfully weird b-boy pastiche full of handclaps, crunchy guitar and Eastern interludes. That song’s sparkly synths continue into “A Lot of Night Ahead of You,” suggesting Klaus Schulze with a trunk of funk.
RJD2 first started to lose his stroke around the same time that vocals were regularly put over his tracks. Thankfully, most of the sung and rapped songs here conjure the moments when that strategy functioned the best: his unified album-length works with rapper Aceyalone (Magnificent City) and singer Aaron Livingston (in the duo called Icebird). Blueprint’s backpack rhymes lift “It All Came to Me in a Dream” to the stratosphere, while tracks like the Phonte Coleman vehicle “Temperamental” land in today’s bin of indie soul—think Aloe Blacc, think Broken Bells.
More Is Than Isn’t isn’t a perfect comeback. The paper-thin lullaby “Dirty Hands” reminds us that RJ gives Moby a run for his money when it comes to a weak male electro vocal, and for all of its punch “Descended from Myth” sounds like it’s trying way too hard to be “Ghostwriter” from Dead Ringer. But then there are songs like “Got There, Sugar?,” a microcosm of the album that traverses basement jazz, modern big-band funk and ultimately cuts and clicks in a 4:31 span. Music like this tells us that cratedigging journeys can still matter, and tells both artist and listener that you still can’t spell “RJD2” without DJ.