Deltron 3030 – Event 2

There’s been a lot of discussion of Event 2 around the nest lately, and we’ve come to some sort of consensus that the thing was doomed to failure long before it had a chance to release. Even when the big online-stream day arrived, I know I found myself weirdly reluctant to listen – I knew the big comedown was coming. I also know I’m not the only fan that felt that way: Deltron 3030 being the undeniable bedrock-classic of weird sci-fi intellectual rap that it is, expectations ran absurdly high. Constructed by the ensemble cast of Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Dan the Automator, Kid Koala, Sean Lennon, Damon Albarn, MC Paul Barnham and anyone else close enough at hand, the 2003 original stands as one of the big crossover hip-hop benchmarks. Underground and afro-futuristic enough to qualify as legitimate hip-hop, weird enough to lure the rock fans in, stylistically varied and brilliantly-produced enough to stun jaded or inexperienced rap fans like myself (at the time), nothing hit like Deltron 3030 for a nerdy hip-hop neophyte. That said, it’s been ten years. These guys are getting old: most of the old cast is gone, and replaced, weirdly, by a pack of drama kids, comedians and oddballs. Oh. And one of the album’s unifying themes – when it isn’t a space-epic about Deltron saving the human race (or whatever) – is age and stagnation and frustration. Oh. That doesn’t sound like stoned, jovial cyber-afro-futurepunk, does it? So I went into Event 2 a tad worried. Not because the demo tracks weren’t fantastic, but because Event 2 is the Half Life 3 of underground rap bizarrity: there was no way it could stand up to the hype.

And it doesn’t.

But it tries! And a great deal of that success stems from Event 2 eschewing the notion that it might be anything but what it is: a ten-year reunion for a pack of aging oddities, one last cruise around the star-system for good times’ sake. Del’s voice hasn’t aged too noticeably, but his cadence has – a slower, loping rhythm that contrasts harshly with 3030‘s sometimes breathless energy. Dan the Automator (and DJ-turned-conductor Kid Koala) aren’t as concerned with scratching up dusty sci-fi samples anymore as they are with hashing original compositions in the vein of the prior album’s airy orchestral mashups. All this comes together to make Event 2 a significantly different beast – an album very much in the spirit of the original, but lacking its “oh hell why not” intensity. The boys couldn’t have expected their pre-nerdcore side project to blow up so huge, so here that creativity gets funneled down the barrel of hype and stature and a ten-year hiatus. It comes out the other side a leaner, more musically grandiose endeavour, but for all its Cyber somewhere along the way whatever made the trio ‘Punk has certainly been sacrificed for linearity and concision.

And age! Age is such an important theme for Event 2. It’s been ten years since the original; in real time, in fictional time. The original’s 3030 has pushed the clock forward to Stardate 3040 (courtesy of Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the fantastic intro) and times have changed in the Deltron universe. Most importantly, stuff is happening now. One of the original’s core strengths – and really, like me, you might have to go back and re-listen – is how little of a narrative it actually presented. Oh sure there’s plenty of fantastic wordplay and collage going on, but actual linear storytelling is nowhere to be seen in Del’s original afro-futurist opus until “Battlesong” – and that’s 2 songs shy of the outro. Event 2 leans in the opposite direction; it’s Alien to Aliens. “The Return” nods to “3030” right out the gate, and its near-seven minutes run a recap of the former album’s events. Maybe the problem therein is that despite how awesome the production is (and really, all the work done on this album sonically rules); it can be easy to lose Del in the shuffle. Or maybe, like me, you’re just momentarily thrown off by how different his flow sounds. He’s slower, measured to the point of nearly sounding behind the beat – and that’s going to happen a lot on Event 2. Following “The Return”, well, it’s story time. Event 2 is a crash-course through Deltron’s new galaxy-spanning adventures – and I mean we’re on his damn shoulder this time. No more grandiose depictions of here’s-me-destroying-the-government-with-a-virus-in-concept, this time we’re the HandyCam Deltron uses to explore the cosmos, one adventure after another. This can be cool, like on “Pay The Price” when Del raps a conversation with a corrupt, mind-controlled drone, or on “Talent Supersedes” after Del defects from his squad, and takes to marauding across the stars with his crew. It can also be completely disorienting and a tad frustrating – several listens in and I’m still pondering some of the plot points; a vice the original shared but mitigated by being novel as hell. So the structure’s certainly switched up, and to the album’s detriment. There’s a lot less playing with metaphor and complex wordplay than the original (though of course it’s still Del), and a greatly increased amount of neat little sci-fi vignettes. The bonus being that for new listeners, those 10-year-olds hearing this that hadn’t been born at the advent of the original [existential crisis here], this is going to be a pretty cool ride. For whatever flaws Deltron’s narrowed scope might bring, there’s still nothing like Deltron 3030 hitting the airwaves or cracking the top 40 these days, and we can rest confident Event 2 is certainly a more accessible listen to modern ears, if less artistically unprecedented.

Shy of finding a way to incorporate Janelle Monae, the guest list here couldn’t be more.. unexpected: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Aaron Bruno, David Cross/Amber Tamblyn, Zack De La Rocha, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, The Lonely Island, Black Rob, David Chang, Damon Albarn, Emily Wells, Casual, Mike Patton and Jamie Cullum. What was that about cooks and kitchens? This an album with 16 tracks: two of those tracks lack guest vocalists, and that proportion ought to tell us something about how Event 2 came into existence. This thing is a hype train doubtless, and to their credit the guest vocalists either do fantastic work or disappear entirely: Aaron Bruno can be heard, in theory, on “Nobody Can”. Maybe someone will scramble the waveforms and locate Mike Patton on “City Rising From The Ashes” like an Aphex Twin track. On the other end of the spectrum, Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets processed into an eery, ethereal pitch-shifted whisper, Emily Wells delivers her four bars exceedingly well, and The Lonely Island actually bring some of the most refreshingly relaxed comedic turns on the album. David Cross and Tamblyn are serviceably funny, giving us Event 2‘s “New Coke” moments, and Zack De La Rocha just can’t contain how Goddamn Excited he is to be Rapping Angrily because “FUCK YOUR FORMAT”. SURE ZACK, I’M ON IT. Again though, it’s an ensemble cast, and identifying the contributors blind can be a fun sort of game. Special mention is reserved, however, for Damon Albarn who manages one of the finest vocal turns of his post-Blur career on “What Is This Loneliness”, 2‘s “Time Keeps On Slipping”. “Loneliness”, remarkably, captures the spirit of the original and might even surpass its emotional impact. It’s a reminder of how absurdly talented the original Gorillaz team (that’s Damon, Del, Automator and Koala) can be when their chemistry clicks. It’s also Event 2‘s most transparent moment, something like an audio-flashback to 2003. It’s also the moment that Event 2 fell apart for me.

Well that’s ominous. Here’s what I mean: musically, Event 2 an absolutely gorgeous piece of work. The choruses range from catchy (“The Return”, “My Only Love”) to brilliant (“Loneliness”, “Do You Remember”, “Look Across The Sky”), and even the easily-skipped interludes succeed in their brevity. The production is largely a live orchestra conducted by Koala, and Del’s always been blessed with one of the most idiosyncratic voices in hip-hop – and nothing about that has changed (or can). The issue is that when I hit “What Is This Loneliness” and heard Albarn again, it hit home how cleanly Event 2 adheres to the curves of the original, and how derivative it is. Yes it’s a sequel, but it so often feels like a recast or an expansion pack. This isn’t Starcraft 2 it’s Brood War, man. And for all of Event 2‘s successes, that sense of  ‘new, action-packed retread‘ is bound to drive down the review score. For as much fun as it often is, Event 2 is a skin stretched uneasily over Deltron 3030, that’s beyond argument. So by all means listen if you like the guests. Listen if you want to hear some of 2013’s most ambitious and excitingly bizarre hip-hop production. Listen if you want to hear Del at least four times as invigorated as he was on Golden Era! But don’t go into Event 2 asking them to recast the Deltron mould; that starship has sailed, and likely for the best.

You know, until someone sticks them in a room with Janelle Monae.

B+

Originally published right here, October 2013

What’s happening?/I keep my dreadlocks in a napkin ring/Rap and sing/Unlike the homogenous clones/I’m into earth tones birth stones and erogenous zones/The more ticklish the more you have!

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