There are two ways to approach the future -- with hope or with anxiety -- and how you do it likely depends on your level of confidence that you'll be able to find a place there. Music writers are particularly fond of invoking the latter approach by applying the term "futuristic" to records that are simply cold or jarring, as if to say that the future is here, and if you can't relate, then you'll be left behind. Dabrye's Two/Three follows the other path, providing a glimpse of hip-hop's future with welcoming arms. His record is futuristic in the sense that it builds upon the boom-bap that made hip-hop the cultural juggernaut that it is today by taking deliberate, targeted steps that map a coherent course.
Because Ann Arbor native Tadd Mullinix is releasing Two/Three five years after its full-length predecessor, 2001's One/Three, it has the luxury of a built-in sense of progress, but not as much as you might think. One/Three's minimal yet melodic beats, after all, held an understated, glitchy feel that put them fairly well ahead of their time. The biggest development for Dabrye's new record is the inclusion of emcees, but even that is part of a logical progression; "Game Over," Two/Three's likely highlight featuring Phat Kat and the late Jay Dee, was released as a single back in 2003.
As those two Detroit veterans do their thing over the throbbing low end, droning, overlapping electronics and snappy handclaps of "Game Over," Dabrye's vision comes into focus. He's established a style where loops anchor the beats but his singular concept of what makes sense guides the beat production. The broken-slot-machine melody of "That's What's Up" (featuring Vast Aire) should not work, but it does. Ditto the spindly, acid-tinged bass line of "Special" that Guilty Simpson thugs out of the park. There's so much innovation, so much attention to detail, and so many sonic surprises sprinkled throughout the record that MF Doom riding Dabrye's superhero synths on "Air" barely seems worth mentioning.
Though you could demand a little more out of some of the lesser-known emcees featured here, the beats complement the vocals across the board, and that diminishes any complaints. And even when Dabrye's palette of sounds veers toward the frosty, there are always elements to keep things warm and hospitable in a way that escapes most so-called futuristic producers. "Jorgy," a collaboration with Waajeed of the Platinum Pied Pipers, maintains a fuzzy exterior, but the tinkling pianos and bouncy bass notes protect its friendly nature. Advancement doesn't mean detachment and unfamiliarity; it means improvement.
New paths are painted in subtle strokes, and Dabrye understands this better than most. Hip-hop will always have a place for abstract, reactionary stabs at progress such as those of Antipop Consortium or Dalek, but Two/Three is truly the next logical step, a new way of looking at the realities of the coming age while keeping things in perspective. Labeling any alienating record as futuristic does a disservice to music. Futurism should build a sort of momentum that makes the unknown feel a little bit more known, making us excited about the future while assuaging our fears that it'll never be this good again. Welcome, Two/Three. We've been waiting for you.
"Encoded Flow" MP3
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