Everyday I wake up with a question burning inside my head that I wish I could scream from the mountaintops. It’s a question that has kept me up many nights, and I feel as if I answer it, the world will become a brighter place. The question is as follows: “How come music that blends jazz, hip-hop, and electronic genres hasn’t become more popular?” Sure, you have some success stories like jazz/hip-hop fusions such as A Tribe Called Quest or Madlib’s Shades of Blue, but more often than not, musical acts that mix these genres are often sidelined into their own weird genre (see trip-hop) and are very rarely given the widespread recognition they deserve for just how innovative they are within these genres. But for every innovator in a field, you get twice as many failures. RJD2 and his new album is more of a failure than it is an innovation.
RJD2 is a Eugene, OR-born Columbus, OH-raised musical producer who is probably most well known for his song “Ghostwriter” and for the music for the intro to “Mad Men.” I know I can’t be the only one who is constantly perplexed by RJD2’s musical genre. His early album “Dead Ringer” was a cool, jazzy and mostly-instrumental album that took obvious influences from DJ Shadow, but was done well enough to separate himself from the many DJ Shadow impersonators. My favorite part of the album was how unpredictable it was; you might have one instrumental track that was jazz, another that was borderline plunderphonics and then sprinkled throughout the album you’d have guest rappers randomly showing up.
Unfortunately, RJD2’s music has lost this unpredictably and has mutated into a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none style. Never residing in a single genre for too long and never mixing genres enough to be a unique fusion of genres, RJD2’s “Dame Fortune” is more of a on/off switch of genres instead of a dimmer-switch. Fortunately for us, this new album “Dame Fortune” might be RJD2’s most musically consistent album to date. Unfortunately for us, musically consistent for RJD2 means only switching between two genres instead of switching between three or four.
Labeling “Dame Fortune” by the genres it dabbles is like defining a buffet meal by a single type of food. You got your barbecue chicken, lo mein noodles and then the always ubiquitous mac n’ cheese and pizza to round it all out. That’s similar to what’s happening on this album here. You got your guitar solos on the song “The Roaming Hoard,” your big-band/marching-band piece on “The Sheboygan Left,” and then your decidedly electronic intro/outro tracks “The Portal Inward” and “The Portal Outward.”
This isn’t just cherry picking for the sake of this review. Every song from this album is decidedly different from the one before it. Now sometimes this works on an album with a unifying theme that combines disparate elements. Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” did this wonderfully, but “Dame Fortune” doesn’t have any such thing. The album doesn’t feel so much like an album from a single artist, but it sounds like I am listening to my iTunes library randomly shuffling through my collection of music.
“Dame Fortune” also suffers from not being particularly well-versed in the genres it dabbles in. Sure RJD2 might go from plunderphonics-ish “A New Theory” to hip-hop on “Up in the Clouds” in the span of 20 minutes, but one of those songs sounds like an Avalanche B-B-side and the other sounds like an overly serious rap track with verses from MC Blueprint who is trying his absolute best to sound like the “Great Value” version of RZA.
“Up in the Clouds” also represents the other problem with this buckshot approach to style on this album. You very quickly go from something pretty abstract on the previous track “Your Nostalgic Heart and Lung”—a lyricless journey into some vaguely “Tron”-inspired soundscape—to a shitty inspirational hip-hop track about someone waking up from a coma and learning to walk again. The juxtaposition is jarring, and it would probably be considered parody if this were a Weird Al album.
While on the topic of “Your Nostalgic Heart and Lung,” I’m seriously very confused as to who this song is talking about (is it a random fan? A person I should know about? Or just complete fiction?) and why I should care about this story when this album has completely avoided any sort of story-telling or narrative previously on this album.
Now with most album reviews, I can normally justify a score or a recommendation by saying, “Sure it might not be for everyone, but if you’re a fan of this type of music, you’ll find stuff to like on this album,” but with “Dame Fortune” I’m not entirely sure who this album is meant for. There’s not enough electronic music to say that electronic fans will like it, there isn’t enough rock on it to call it a very soft-rock album either, and there certainly isn’t enough hip-hop on here to be considered a hip-hop album. Any fan of RJD2’s music is going to listen to this album regardless of what score I give it, so recommending an RJD2 album to only fans of RJD2’s music in a public review is useless.
So in a general sense, I’d say avoid spending money on this album. There are some good tracks on here like “Peace of What,” “We Come Alive” and “Your Nostalgic Heart and Lung,” but not enough to warrant a buy. For the majority of the runtime, this album comes off as unfocused, scatterbrained and pretty generic. And what’s worse, I guarantee you’ll forget about this album as soon as you listen to something else.