I grew up in Baltimore, practically the duo’s back yard, but I never had a very difficult time ignoring Thievery Corporation, the bourgie downtempo electronic duo from DC. From what little attention I paid, they seemed to represent just about every aspect of dance music that I found the most boring: Expensive suits, sleek graphic design, rabid globalist cross-genre dabbling, antiseptic production sheen. When they played Lollapalooza a couple of years ago, I was wandering around the press area looking for free drinks while they were on one of the main stages, and I remember being completely annoyed the whole time: “What the fuck, a reggae singer now?” And even though we’re from the same town, I’ve never even had to put any effort into ignoring Kane Mayfield, and I can’t imagine anyone else has either. Every town, I imagine, has at least a few guys like Kane — skilled rap technicians who cram in lots of syllables but never seem to bother much with songwriting. But on his new mixtape, Kane devotes the entire thing to rapping over repurposed Thievery Corporation instrumentals, and the end result isn’t just better than the sum of its parts; it’s completely fucking great by any standards. I don’t really have any explanation for that beyond this: Music is awesome, and anytime you’re certain of anything that you haven’t thought that much about, you’re probably wrong.
Here’s the thing about rappers like Kane: As skilled as they may be, they usually dull whatever appeal they may have by rapping over shitty fourth-generation facsimiles of ’90s New York boom-bap. And in just about every circumstance, that production style saps away whatever personality and vitality the rappers may have. I can spend an hour or two listening to, say, recent-vintage DJ Premier protege Termanology and not remember a single thing he said. That stuff isn’t bad, necessarily, but it tends to fill me with a deep, overwhelming apathy. And Kane is exactly the type of rapper who can fall into those sorts of holes. He’s got a hard pugnacity to his delivery, and he keeps it amped up at all times. His delivery is fast but not especially fluid. He crams lines with internal rhymes but rarely sinks into a beat’s pocket. He can be preachy sometimes. There’s a hint of a Baltimore accent in his vowel sounds, but you have to be listening for it to really notice it; otherwise, his is a very New York voice.
But pushing him outside what I imagine to be his comfort zone, giving him room to go in over these glinting midtempo Thievery Corporation tracks, he suddenly has a much better opportunity to show why he’s special. With the weightless sheen of these tracks, Kane gets a certain lightness in his delivery, and even his conscious-rap moments never feel overbearing. It’s a quick and easy listen, eight tracks in 25 minutes, with no guests and precious few choruses — but when it’s over that quickly, it doesn’t really need them. When he does get into well-trod perils-of-the-drug-game territory, he finds slick ways to dispense messages we’ve already heard a bunch of times: “The streets a contradiction, you’re earnin’ respect / But you’re losing dignity because you’re servin’ ‘em death.” And he’s funny. When we hear new-age philosophical vocal samples on opener “Rappity Raps,” he clowns them expertly: “He’s like the yoga master? And he’s saying stuff?”
By the same token, Thievery Corporation suddenly get a whole lot more interesting and palatable when there’s a hard and hungry rapper going in over their tracks, one who knows how to use their beats without quite showcasing them. The smeary synths and Deep Forest flutes on “New Jack City,” for instance, get to contrast starkly with the perils-of-the-streets stuff that Kane is talking about, and Kanye gets to have fun playing around with his fake Jamaican accent over the touristy but menacing dancehall bassline on “Cereal Killer.” I don’t know much of the story behind Rhymes By Kane: Thievery Corporation Edition; for all I know, Thievery Corporation had no idea he was making it in the first place. But if they’re smart, they’ll take him on tour, throw him on all their records, and take full advantage of the playful urgency that his voice gives them.
Download Rhymes By Kane: Thievery Corporation Edition for free here.