The incestuous underground has developed such a recognizable sound that the likelihood that you will enjoy any particular record from the scene is basically preordained. Slug of Atmosphere, Eyedea, Blueprint (who produces here) and now Illogic on Celestial Clockwork continue to provide sounds and voices expected and time-tested. The similarities between these flagship emcees and the absence of unique inflection are aspects of this scene that are really starting to bother me. But if you like Atmosphere’s Seven’s Travels, the new Eyedea and Abilities, or the Soul Position record for any reason other than the Rjd2 beats, who am I to say you won’t like this album too?
Not all of us buy the latest releases from every obscure rapper out of Columbus, Ohio. This is Illogic’s fourth full-length — he released Unforeseen Shadows in 1999, Got Lyrics? in 2002 and the tour-only Write to Death in 2003. If you were one of the four thousand people who bought those, you probably know all of the words, and you’ll probably do the same with this one.
For everyone else — those of us who don’t take pride in our ability to know who Sage Francis toured with in 2001 and who refuse to recognize any of the hip-hop on MTV — Celestial Clockwork won’t be enough to convince anyone that Illogic is worth your attention. As mentioned, Blueprint provides the beats, and they are serviceable if not memorable. Nothing here is bouncing, and the chill-out feel of the openers fades quickly from memory, reminding us that less talented producers often forget that it is much more difficult to make Endtroducing than it is to make Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
But the beats aren’t the star here, Illogic is. And it is his words that will make or break this album. He is clearly more invested in his poetry than in the sound of his voice. His flow is well crafted in its rhythm but it lacks any interesting cadence. That is especially emphasized by a guest spot by Aesop Rock — one of the few members of this scene with an interesting voice — who, along with Vast Aire, lends his flow to the surprisingly boring “Time Capsule.”
Illogic’s insights lack the stand-out quality of a top-tier artist. “First Trimester” is a thoughtful examination of an unexpected pregnancy, but compare it to the classic Common joint “Retrospect for Life” from One Day It’ll All Make Sense and it becomes amateurish. On “Lessons in Love,” where, over the best beat on the record, Illogic finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him, so he decides to have sex with her, make her orgasm and then leave. Quite the lesson, Illogic. Thanks.
Some songs are good songs, like “My World” and “The Only Constant,” which has Blueprint doing what he does better — rapping. Nothing here is terrible, or even bad. But most songs blend together, and many of them are typically pretentious and immaturely philosophical, proving that big words and accomplished flow can create only the illusion of substance. I played this for an unbiased, highly respected underground hip-hop fan (my girlfriend) who told me that had her friends made Celestial Clockwork, she would think it was awesome. But, she added, her friends actually could make Celestial Clockwork, and therein lies the problem.