A smooth fusion of hip hop, jazz and electronica from veteran producer
Veteran hip-hop producer RJD2, full name Ramble John Krohn, is a jack of all trades. Throughout his career, he’s taken forays into jazz, hip hop, electronica and a variety of other genres, rising from a relative unknown to an in-demand indie hip-hop producer in the process. It’s been almost four years since RJD2’s last full-length release, 2016’s Dame Fortune, but with the release of 2020’s The Fun Ones, he’s back–and like the record’s title suggests, he’s just having fun with it now.
Although The Fun Ones makes heavy use of conversational vocal samples, it is, like many other RJD2 records, heavily instrumental. The vocal samples, along with intermittent record scratches and city sounds, serve mainly to add to the vintage feel of the album. That’s not to say they don’t add anything lyrically; many of these clips contain insightful commentary on the value of passion and music. But The Fun Ones is really about the sound and RJD2 delivers in a big way on that front.
The first seconds of the album opener, “No Helmet Up Indianola,” establish the project’s dominant fusion of jazz and hip hop. The lead sax riff harkens back to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” and RJD2 does an excellent job of letting different instruments get the spotlight in this track; the alternating sax and guitar riffs are reminiscent of two jazz soloists dueling.
The jazzy undertones are continued in the next tracks, “Indoor S’mores” and “20 Grand Palace.” The former song conjures up images of walking around a city during the era of jazz and big bands, complete with record scratches and sound effects of city dwellers bustling around. The latter track keeps the city feel but sounds more elegant as Krohn adds flutes, violins and other non-brass instruments to the mix.
The next batch of tracks moves away from the big, jazzy sounds of the opening tunes in favor of a more minimalist approach. The song “One of a Kind” relies mainly on a stuttering drumbeat and a feature from Queens-based rapper Homeboy Sandman. “Pull Up On Love” also follows this formula but adds a bit more to the mix with Krohn throwing in record scratches, some guitar riffs and chords to add color.
The track “High Street Will Never Die” is perhaps the most chaotic song on the record, but deserves plaudits based on the production value alone. RJD2 splices together what seem like unrelated samples into an off-kilter, multi-instrumental riff that carries the song forward. In combination with harsh synths, echoing beeps and reverberating guitars, there’s a lot going on in the track but its originality makes it a worthwhile listen.
On “The Freshman Lettered,” the production is clean and interesting. A catchy bassline provides the song’s foundation, as Krohn layers on keyboard riffs, robotic airy synths and various percussive elements that evolve as the track progresses He does an excellent job of letting the song breathe, stripping back elements of the instrumental in some places to feature one or two instruments. Overall, it’s a nice change of pace from the jazz-heavy tunes before it and it stands out as one of the most complete tracks on the album.
Krohn follows this up with another strong track, “A Genuine Gentleman,” featuring Aceyalone. The tone and flow of the rapping is vintage, calling back to the lyrical style of ’80s and ’90s hip hop. Raspy guitars are balanced well with bright synths and guitar chords to create one of the more compelling instrumentals on the project.
The album’s final three tracks revert back to jazz influences. “Itch Ditch Mission” pleasantly incorporates video game-sounding synths and conga drums into the mix, while “My Very Own Burglar Neighbor” pairs jazz instruments with ghostly vocal choruses, frantic drumming and spaced-out synths. Each adds a unique spin to the jazzy sounds from which RJD2 draws inspiration. Finally comes album closer “A Salute to Blood Bowl Legends,” a track that could certainly be described as cinematic. Disco-sounding synths and violin chords build and swell into a bombastic chorus featuring booming kick drums, record scratches and vocal samples. The song and album come to a close with a final vocal sample about the good that music can do for the world.
While some tracks on The Fun Ones meander into odd tangents or feel a bit repetitive, the overall sound is both fresh and engaging. Despite Krohn’s use of a wide range of sounds and instruments, he welds them together seamlessly into fully-fledged soundscapes, each with its own nuance and unique array of instruments. At the same time, he pays a fitting tribute to jazz and hip hop music, from which his own style originates. The Fun Ones doesn’t offer up much lyrically, but its creative and intricate instrumentation make it more than a worthwhile listen.