The French poet Paul Valéry once stated that "the veritable tradition in great things is not to repeat what others have done, but to rediscover the spirit that created these great things — and create utterly different things in different times." One Word Extinguisher is a juxtaposition of the highest order: stunningly beautiful, dreadfully haunting, clinically precise, wildly loose and free. But it is always hip-hop, and in that spirit, it is one of the most ambitious albums of recent memory.
Scott Herren’s 2001 effort under the Prefuse 73 moniker, Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives, reassembled chopped-up beats and vocal samples into an unlikely masterpiece and a blueprint for the future of hip-hop. Herren, who started off in commercial studios in his native Atlanta, was sometimes charged with trashing hip-hop or diminishing the role of the emcee by weaving sampled vocals into the structure of many songs, but accusing innovators of bringing down the apocalypse is hardly a new means for the stale and flaccid to attempt to avoid scrutiny. With One Word Extinguisher, Herren has once again launched an assault on the status quo by unleashing an astoundingly fresh, far-reaching, and unabashedly emotional record while staying true to the tenets of hip-hop.
Extinguisher serves as further proof that Herren is a master of finding ways to make the incompatible compatible. "Busy Signal" combines beat boxing and sweeping strings with a dash of glitch for an improbable highlight. Songs dissolve into answering machine messages or carnival tunes when, suddenly, the beats are flowing again — and it never feels forced or artificial.
The biggest difference between Vocal Studies and Extinguisher is not so much the method but the source material from which the latter is drawn. Nothing is off limits, from melancholy jazz to Motown-esque vocals. The sample gymnastics are not abandoned, however, as at least four tracks feature Herren’s unique ability to chop vocals into indistinguishable syllables yet still keep it catchy.
A couple of flesh-and-blood emcees even get in on the action, as Mr. Lif stops by to drop a short but typically poignant verse: "You live ignorant but expect to die wise / becoming sincere during your last breath of air … don’t forget all of that time you couldn’t spare / to sit down and lend your three children an ear." Diverse shreds the ever-shifting beat on "Plastic," the only overt shot across the bow of lazy hip-hop on the album: "With your pop trends and predetermined top tens / It’s obvious the plot’s thin / You’re plastic / Note your mainstream assembling the same themes / Over and over again / You’re plastic."
For all of the revolutionary music that is thrown at the listener for just over an hour, perhaps the most satisfying component is the surprising amount of sentiment with which it’s infused. From the sexy horns of "Perverted Undertone" to the aching melody of the tremendous "Storm Returns" (co-produced by skateboarding legend Tommy Guerrero), to the confident bounce of the title track, the emotional range of One Word Extinguisher is staggering. It’s equally perfect whether you’re nodding your head at a stoplight or wrapped up in a blanket on a rainy day after a crippling breakup. It is a love letter to hip-hop crafted ransom-note style from one of the most promising artists of the genre, and it is an essential record.