If you go to UrbanDictionary.com and look up the word “coochie,” you’ll be met with a message explaining that, if you don’t know what it is, you’ve probably never seen one. I might add that you’re also probably not on the same wavelength as Blakroc; it’s the title of the album’s first song, for one thing, and a later song is titled after a thematically related term, “Hoochie Coo.” But speaking more generally, the presence of the word at album’s beginning is indicative of the overall attitude– and lack of decorum– present herein.
This music is vulgar, in the sense of being very base, primal, and rough; and it’s tasteless, in the sense that it plays things loud, loose, and ragged. That’s all befitting an album that was cut spontaneously in just a few days; that splits the difference between hip-hop and blues; and that focuses its lyrical attention on cheating women, hard times, money, and drugs– common subjects dating back to the genesis of the blues and all the way to the cutting edge of rap circa 2009.
But while it may be visceral and brawny, it’s not dumb: Actually, it’s a surprisingly well-conceived concoction that completely redefines what “rap/rock” might mean in the 21st century, sounding quite unlike anything made by, say, Linkin Park or Limp Bizkit. And of course it does: To be a bit of a reductionist about it, the blue are brought hot and hard by the Black Keys, while the rapping comes via a roster of MCs that includes Mos Def, Ludacris, and half the Wu Tang Clan, including hip-hop’s reigning king Raekwon and the deceased Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
But that makes this sound like some kind of lame black-meets-white experiment, where actually it’s a perfectly symbiotic and sympathetic affair. The Keys know how important sound and recording techniques are to the blues, and they carry the same sensibility over to these slightly more beat-oriented numbers, emphasizing the low end but keeping things unvarnished and wonderfully rough. And the MCs present lock into the spirit of the blues; the focus is less on verbal finesse than on gritty storytelling.
The camaraderie present in these sessions shines through on the record, with house band and spotlighted MCs always seeming to meet each other halfway: The Keys aren’t afraid to let their featured vocalists’ individual personalities shine through, as when Mos Def goes off into typically philosophical territory, but he returns the favor by keeping it dialed into a low, bluesy rumble. Newcomer NOE sounds like a dead-ringer for Jay-Z, but his “Hard Times” performance could almost scan as an old blues song. The Keys, meanwhile, bring a hook bold enough that it could almost make its way to a ringtone, were it not so hard-hitting and from-the-gut.
Raekwon, meanwhile, is still on a coke-rap kick– his “Stay Off the Fuckin’ Flowers” is thematically of a piece with his own latest album, but he performs it over a brooding, minor-key clatter by the Keys; in this context, the blue hues of his story are illuminated, and the distance between old-timey hard-luck stories and more modern tales of the dealer’s downfall seems that much shorter. The rest of the record is in much the same spirit: The songs are ugly and sexy and mean, but they aren’t without dimension. And speaking of which, how nice that there’s some space here for R&B diva Nicole Wray to bring a much-needed feminine perspective to the torchy kiss-off “Why Can’t I Forget Him.”
That this project exists in the first place is something of a surprise, but it’s not totally out of the blue; the Black Keys collaborated with producer Danger Mouse on their last LP as a band, which hinted at their interest in this kind of music, but Blakroc is actually a much more convincing fusion of rap and blues. The Danger Mouse production touches on Attack & Release brought some hazy psychadelia and spooky atmospherics to the proceedings that sometimes shifted the focus to mood instead of hard-hitting songs, and if the Keys have maintained some of that ominous darkness here, they’ve also made it subservient to their grooves and their snarling riffs, making Blakroc an album that’s deeply felt– and deeply satisfying– purely on a gut level, smart music that you don’t have to think about to fall in love with.