Not long after he collaborated with Aceyalone on the West Coast hip-hop classic A Book of Human Language (1998), Matthew “Mumbles” Fowler disappeared from music and took a spiritual journey to India. Anyone hoping that he brought some presents back with him should be pleased with Transformations/Illuminations, Mumbles’ first album of original music under his own name since 1998. Indian violins, sitars, flutes and tablas pull a beaded curtain over Mumbles’ spooky boom bap, sounding not so different than his work on the instrumental hip-hop project S.E.V.A. in 2005.
These newer elements in Mumbles’ production style are mostly cosmetic — his spare, head-nodding creations still inhabit the same darkly spiritual places they used to. But if Transformations/Illuminations suffers a bit because it consistently plumbs the exact same vibe, its wealth of guest appearances challenge Mumbles in new ways. “Courage Under Fire” reunites him with Aceyalone, and its low drone and hissing high-hat match the tension in Acey’s voice as he meditates on courage and dignity. Down-tempo singer Tracy McMillan coos breathily all over “Here You Are,” and Mumbles frames it capably with a simple acoustic-guitar sample reminiscent of RJD2’s “Ghostwriter.” And closer “Prema’s Dilemma” brings in Mumbles’ father and two uncles (known for their work with Frank Zappa) on flute and brass, bringing out the latent jazz sensibility in Mumbles’ work.
DJ Marvski and Cut Chemist’s scratches on “Rise ’99” and “Rise Reprise” don’t work as well — that sort of turntablism feels too modern for Mumbles’ beats, which sound like ancient treasures taken from a dusty old attic that hasn’t been accessed for a hundred years. Call it the curse of being one of the most distinctive hip-hop producers around that Mumbles is best when he’s alone behind the boards. But by placing instrumental tracks alongside a variety of vocal collaborations (jazz singer Flora Purim and L.A. poet Kamau Daaood also contribute), Transformations/Illuminations shows that Mumbles is more than just an expert sonic craftsman. He’s a good listener too, as attuned to the outside world as he is to the spirituality that drives him to look ever inward.