Reviews:: RJD2 - The Third Hand

Being a successful underground hip hop producer has to be kind of a thankless job. You work for a long time to get good at what you do, to get your beats to a level where some decent MC's want to work with you. So let's say you get there, what next? How do you progress as an artist while at the same time trying to put food in your indie kids mouths? Well you can go the more commercial route of dudes like 9th Wonder and start doing beats for the likes of Jay-Z and Destiny's Child, or you can art it up and follow the path of everyone's favorite droid-sounding producer, RJD2.

What path is that, you ask like the curious little hipster-dickens you most likely are. Well it seems even as he was releasing some rather hip hopish projects last year like Magnificent City, his collaboration with Aceyalone, and the second Soul Position album, Things Go Better With RJ And Al, he was working on a new project that would take him in a new "pop" direction. Specifically that direction would be RJ's new album, The Third Hand. While this album certainly has plenty of RJ's signature drums, he uses a lot of piano and synth sounds to create a more "pop" sound. In another more drastic difference from his previous albums, RJ sings on the majority of the songs.'

We might as well address the huge elephant in the room that is Ramble John's singing up front (Yes, his name is Ramble John Krohn, you know a "rap" guy wants to be taken serious when you start seeing his real name in every story about him). I like RJD2, or Ramble, whatever you prefer. I liked his 2 previous albums, and I wanted to like this one. Considering how I harp on about my friend K-os's right to "grow" as an artist and create music outside of traditional hip hop, I should certainly encourage other artists I like to do the same. Maybe. The Third Hand kind of makes me think otherwise. Simply put, RJ doesn't have the Goulet-esque chops to croon a full album. His voice is kind of weak, and generally without emotion of any recognizable type. It's not that it's bad, it's just kind of there, not really adding anything to the track.

But enough of that, I do enjoy some of the songs, so I should get to those. I enjoy Have Mercy plenty, the big drums and funky geetar provide a kinetic backdrop for one of Ramble John's better vocal outings. I should slide in that RJ played plenty of live instruments for this album, credit where it's due and all that. The funky instrumental Get It has better drums than just about any hip hop song you'll hear today. I don't want to highlight all the instrumental tracks, but the thick bassline and orchestra sounds of Murs Beat make it rather excellent. RJ keeps his vocals to a minimal on Beyond, and wisely let's the crisp drums and spacey synths do the heavy lifting. Might've wanted to follow that pattern a little more. The kickdrums at the start of Just When remind me of The Man I Used To Be, and that goodwill makes me enjoy the song.

Musically, I have no real issue with this album. It's interesting, and even with the new emphasis on live instruments, it sounds polished like RJD2's previous work. As I mentioned, my issues are with Ramble J's decision to sing it up. For me, I think I'd have liked it better if he scaled back his vocals a bit, or perhaps even brought in some guests to do the singing parts. But I'm guessing the aim is to market himself as a solo artist and avoid the "producer record" stigma that can be a result of having a bunch of guest vocalists on your album. Certainly there are other people doing music similar to this right now, so this record could find an audience. But I'm guessing people who loved his previous two albums or his regular production work won't be part of that crowd.

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