Dave Chappelle emerged from hibernation earlier this year to spill the beans about his self-imposed exile — the implosion of Chappelle’s Show; going to Africa; the last year and a half of low-key solitude; taking $50 million of the white man’s money. He hit up Oprah and the cover of Blender and, for reasons I still can’t figure out, Inside the Actor’s Studio. The common denominator in all of these appearances was a sobering remark Chappelle made about black comedians doing self-deprecating humor and how he became frozen with the uncertainty of whether he was being laughed with or laughed at. It’s one of the most heartfelt things I’ve ever heard a famous person say.
You’ve got to wonder, amid all the isolating weirdness, whether Kool Keith has ever had a similar thought. Clearly he realizes the shtickiness of what he does (creating detailed alien-surgeon back stories to complement (or make up for) the release of albums; wearing bouffant wigs and eating rat sandwiches on CD covers). But there’s something suspicious about The Return of Dr. Octagon, the official follow-up to Keith’s genre-bending fusion-rap masterpiece from 1996. Despite all the stupid records he’s put out before, The Return of Dr. Octagon is the first one that plunges wholly into self-parody. He’s now a fully realized clown, a prop, a joke and, most disappointingly, a sub-par rapper whose forced ideas and personality obstacles have devolved into flimsy, uninspired character sketches.
There was a light earlier this year when Keith collaborated with producer Tom C3 for the great Project Polaroid. Streamlined and confident, Project Polaroid evoked all the creativity Keith channels like no one else — warped yet inviting rhyme-tales told over elaborately atmospheric beatscapes with zero regard for hip-hop’s climate change. Unfortunately, the album coincided with the underwhelming Nogatco Rd. and all the annoying things about Keith — scatological fantasies, half-assed themes, alien-surgeon back stories — came rushing back like a queasy vomit surge. The Return of Dr. Octagon doesn’t really produce that feeling; it’s not complete enough to produce much of anything, beyond frustration and the conclusion that Keith needs to hide out for a while so he can make a grand reintroduction on VH-1’s Hip Hop Honors in 2014.
With messy, truly horrible production from One Watt Sun (Ben Green, Simon Walbrook, John Lindland) that either buries or totally obscures Keith’s lyrics (which are at an unintelligible low, anyway) through aimless looping and scratching, The Return of Dr. Octagon fails both as a sequel (no discernible plot/continuation of previous record) and as an album (it really sucks). “Trees,” the first song after an intro called “Our Operators Are Masturbating,” is the best track offered over the course of thirty-four minutes (Return is short; not a bad thing). The refrain (“Trees are dying,” chopped up and repeated about four hundred times), is simple, to-the-point, and ecologically responsible, something you’d be hard-pressed to say about anything else here. “Aliens” and “Ants” attempt to duplicate the abbreviated-concept thing “Trees” does so well, but it’s amazing how stale Keith’s ideas look when there’s the first sign of cookie-cutter tampering. Plus, “Aliens” and “Ants” have big rubber-band beats that take up every seat in the house; there’s no room left for verses once the guys in One Watt Sun get their shine on through ringing, buzzing, cut-and-paste experiments that sound like the stuff they couldn’t scrape off the wall after they threw a bunch of poo at it. Keith is barely allowed on his own follow-up record.
Nothing else on The Return of Dr. Octagon makes sense, except “A Gorilla Driving a Pick-Up Truck,” which makes perfect sense. It’s amazing, this fall from grace, because you can look at people like the Neptunes, Missy Elliott, Timbaland — hell, even Cam’ron now — and trace their nostalgically futuristic, off-the-beaten-path leanings back to projects like Dr. Octagonecologyst and the Ultramagnetic albums of ’88 to ’93. The difference between the two is a commitment to growth, or at least the ability to sidestep — don’t raise the bar if you won’t be able to reach it, or if you can’t come up with another game to play. Really, Kool Keith’s not even lacing up anymore. Why should we bother to watch?