Kool Keith is the kind of rapper who, instead of telling you he’s a Mets fan, says, “The Yankees lost but the blue-and-orange team amuse us.” He doesn’t meet new love interests, he has flight attendants cooking salmon cakes in high-heeled shoes; wack MCs don’t get booed off stage, they get shipped to deli meat plants in Quebec. He’s been a legacy act for three different generations of rap fans, written off and resurrected innumerable times. He’s been deemed a goofy eccentric by those who won’t tease out the grim humanity in his writing, he’s been hermetically sealed in the space stations of his most devoted fans’ imaginations. But on his newest album, Feature Magnetic, he shirks off all those constraints to, simply and inimitably, just rap.
The premise is clear: Kool Keith trades verses with an array of guest stars, packaged with bare hooks and brisk running times. In most cases, he pulls his collaborators into his own orbit. Necro spits, “You’re emo and you bump Brian Eno.” Slug sounds like he woke up in the early George W. Bush years, laughing about your insecurities over drinks with your therapist. Even the twice-a-decade DOOM appearance feels like it’s supposed to exist in this universe. Though his voice is at a slightly lower register and his delivery rough around the edges, it’s always a minor thrill to hear the villain fly in from Tulsa and drag a mark to the ATM.
That said, Feature Magnetic’s standout track is the one that pulls Keith furthest from his home planet—specifically, to Vallejo, California with Mac Mall on “Bonneville.” The two split the difference between hyphy revivalism and existential dread, with Mac turning in a supremely tongue-twisting verse. Keith slips back and forth from a copper Continental to his private planes, cufflinks always matching the wheel (or yoke). In fact, the Bronx-bred legend is so agile on the album that when the bounce of “Bonneville” gives way to the stone-faced “Tired,” he’s able to stitch together the fantasy and the fatigue in a way that strengthens both.
All the years with Ultramagnetic MCs, all the one-off concept albums and blood feuds with the record industry have left Keith with wisdom that he dispenses through off-kilter parables: “If you see a junkie kneeling, give him cold water and tell him, ‘Little kids is looking, get up’/I’ma sweat and do a lot of sit-ups.” Though he is, at his heart, that craftsman, stacking high his tower of jump-off-the-screen set pieces, there’s something darker that lurks underneath. Lest “people get cozy and sit inside the paragraph,” as he sneers on “MC Voltron,” he litters the album with details from Koch-era New York, revealed in the manner of sci-fi world building. Maybe it’s a stylistic choice. Or maybe it’s because Keith is from somewhere else entirely.
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