In the year 2000, underground hip hop was the future. Popular both on college campuses and in urban music communities, the alternative to the popular MTV rap of the time took to a lyrics-first attitude, and beats often constructed from an actual DJ, and the stance that things like message were important, while being less reliant on a studio and on marketing. At a time when rap seemed most focused on making money, the underground focused on making music and thrived because of it.
What happened? Sure, there is still underground hip hop of note, with Chance the Rapper one of this year’s biggest breakthroughs and everything from Odd Future to Mac Miller to Pusha T starting underground before leaping out of it. But, the path seems much shorter from underground success to a major-label debut, something many of the 2000-era underground stars seemed opposed to in principle. Atmosphere, Dilated Peoples, Aesop Rock and Black Star all would be hard to imagine in the same light as Black Eyed Peas or even Kanye West, but it’s easy to forget that there was a time those acts were all on the same playing field, talked about in the same breath.
And this is the kind of reality Deltron 3030 was so great at existing in, providing a literal image for their imagined future: The collaboration from Del the Funky Homosapien, who also played a noteworthy part in the original Gorillaz album, with Dan the Automator and Kid Koala. On their first album, setting the action in the year 3030 allowed the project to take production and lyrics to new places, with Del able to touch on some genuine insight into both the hip-hop game and the world at the time.
But just as the sequel-ness inherently implies, faithfulness to their past work sinks Event II, as just the sound and goals of the album seem out of place in 2013 and overly nostalgic, without adding much to the conversation that seemed long finished. Del’s well-known substance and motivational issues over the past decade have long led to a reputation as washed-up, but recent live outings proved Del plenty capable of executing the songs. But Event II also shows some of the negative effects loss of creative juice can have. Del used to be more than breathless sentences crammed into small places; he would turn a clever phrase in a cadence of a jolly genius, all in this drug haze that made just the way he says “hydrometer” memorable. The early songs particularly suffer from this lacking, so much that not even Jogolev can save the songs. It’s about three minutes into Del performing on “The Return” that it is apparent that Del in 2013 is no comparison to Del in 2000.
Skits help paint the scene for the Deltron 3030 cosmic rap opera, which despite the plot-heavy verses, doesn’t have a story interesting enough to worry too much about. Thus, when David Cross or chef David Chang appear, it is helpful in providing the mood that the songs don’t maintain.
The back half of Event II is stronger, with a few hooks bubbling to the surface, including a strong collaboration with Damon Albarn and Casual on “What Is This Loneliness” that is worthy of standing beside their past Gorillaz work, though Casual steals the album with the line “There’s a pentagon inside of every pentagram/know your geometry, it’s in the center man.” It’s simple and a rare moment to smile and feel like listening closely to the album actually was worth it.
Chance the Rapper recently spoke about having no reason to sign to a major label, and maybe he will help grow underground hip hop back to its former state. His music is forward-thinking even when it looks back, which works, rather than the unfortunate Deltron album mentally stuck in the past despite being about about the future.