El-P to the Onion A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin on the departure of R.J. Krohn a.k.a. RJD2 from the Def Jux label:
“The fact of the matter is, RJ took a huge musical departure from what he did with Def Jux. And when we were talking to him about doing the next album, we really hadn't understood how far he had gone, or what he was trying to do. […] At first, it was like, ‘Oh, shit. No, man. We don't want to lose you.’ But at the end of the day, I respect these dudes. And I respect RJ, because he was like, ‘I just don't think you guys are the label for this.’ And I was like, ‘Fuck you. Of course we're the label for this.’ And then he played me the music, and I was like, ‘Oh, right. We're not the label for this.’”
Which about sums it up, actually, and it would be so easy to leave it at that -- well, that and the poor percentage rating -- and just let The Third Hand stew in the haterade sauce of my overly glib dismissal. Then you could download a track (any track) out of ill-fated curiosity and be all, “Shit, yeah, no. No.”
But also, “no.” Because there’s a tragedy going on here, and I want to make sure we’re all well aware of it. Krohn is one ridiculously talented cat. Like, to the point that when he dropped the heaven-climbing beat that was “Share This” on the first Soul Position LP, I thought that maybe one day I’d call RJD2 one of my favorite hip-hop producers, barely outside the pantheon of Pete Rock, Diamond D, Premier, and the RZA. This thought was the culmination of a line of them, rising up on the heels of similar thoughts about “Saliva” for Viktor Vaughn, a stellar remix of Cannibal Ox’s “The F Word,” and 2002’s Deadringer, instrumental hip-hop heir-apparent to DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing (1996).
Maybe I should have paid more attention back in 2004 when Since We Last Spoke whispered a couple hints at whatever the hell this new RJ is. RJ wrote a “song for you” with “Making Days Longer,” singing over pretty bleep-bloops and setting his sights on the Postal Service market. “Through the Walls” enjoyed a lot of airplay around Columbus, Ohio, RJ’s launch pad that probably now thinks he’s a wannabe ‘80s power-popper, not the man who produced beats far too good for the MHz crew. The record’s release party was a blast, though, RJ spindling together two half-hour sets out of material from Deadringer and Since We Last Spoke in front of a hometown crowd that totally lost its collective shit. Turntables idling behind him, RJ closed the evening with “Making Days Longer,” just him and his acoustic guitar. I didn’t mind. I had no trepidation. I was only thinking, “Oh, hey, RJ’s having a little fun with this songwriter shit. Cute.” So I applauded like a twit.
But “cute” and “fun” have germinated and bloomed into the stink of The Third Hand, where RJ writes a lot of mediocre songs and sings them with a mediocre voice in the key of potential and ability and occupational calling made feckless; this is a screwdriver in my chest. Rjd2 had spliced together a spiraling electro-funk-soul-rock genetic strand and stuck it in the nucleus of Deadringer’s shapeshifting hip-hop, which was my bread and butter. The Third Hand is certainly not my bread, nor is it anything resembling my butter; when it is instrumental, it’s “Get It,” which seems a timid remake of Since We Last Spoke’s title track, or it's "The Bad Penny," a better name than the working title of "Murs Beat" since the song, tellingly, has no Murs. Some of the rest sounds like a softer, more overproduced, and generally shittier version of the Cars. The rest of the rest sounds like something duller than that.
And even if you don’t mind that a Murs-less Murs beat is the filler on an album where the filler’s the highlight, or even if you sort of dig the bridge to “You Never Had It,” what are you gonna do about “Have Mercy,” where RJ’s weak tenor roller-skates on marbles, stiff drums, and farting synths? He tries to fit hiccups of lines between his rock guitar burps on “Reality” and for the chorus he approximates a croon; this same recipe for disaster is repeated on the very next song. Simultaneously paisley and gross, The Third Hand is some brutally awkward shit. To call it “growing pains” would be too favorable to where RJ’s trying to take his music.
He’s an eminently forgettable lyricist, too, all lines equal in inanity, though some inanity’s highlighted by repetition. For instance, “Whoa, lazy man, you broke the laws of the gods / Whoa-whoa, lazy man, you broke the laws of the gods,” and “Someday I’m gon’ make her the wife / Someday I’m gon’ make her the wife,” wherein RJ comes hard with the double whoa and gets colloquial with his affection, respectively. Also, re: album title/theme, “wtf?” While RJ’s two healthy, God-given hands are busy spinning vinyl, could “the third” be the mutant one under the table, coming out of RJ’s navel, penning lyrics to the likes of “Laws of the Gods” and “Someday”? If so, RJ, chop that bitch off.
Sigh…now I just sound embittered by my disappointed expectations. I’m the ice-grill, the scowl, the closed-minded head with his arms folded around a copy of Your Face or Your Kneecaps (2001). I’m the guy who doesn’t get it, who doesn’t understand, who doesn’t support artist growth or branching, etc. And that’s absolutely right. I don’t get it. I don’t fucking understand. And I’d like to think that I can be supportive of an artist taking risks and trying new things, but I’m not very good at that when the art is so obviously filled with second-guessing and shooting itself in the foot and biting its own tongue and bleeding out its nose. I don’t support that because that’s like supporting a friend punching himself in the face. Sorry, RJ, but this is tough love.
March 2, 2007