The Colossus opens big. With bombastic trumpet bursts anchored by a pulsating hip-hop beat and occasionally broken up by a heavy, vaguely Middle Eastern motif, opener “Let There Be Horns” lets RJD2 loose at his instrumental finest — thick, melodic and mesmerizing.
RJ’s Electrical Connections
The creatively named Ramble John Krohn (RJD2 is a nickname from his high school days) has always been bold. Melding instrumental hip hop and ambient electronica, he managed to create a sound like nothing else on his 2002 debut album, Deadringer.
With an approach that ranges from unashamedly badass (“The Horror”) to lounge-style classy (“A Beautiful Mine” — the theme song for TV’s “Mad Men”), RJD2’s musical repertoire is vast and varied. Often compared to California-based DJ Shadow, RJD2 similarly sticks to instrumental tracks. So the world was confused when, on 2007’s The Third Hand, RJ suddenly started singing — and not very well.
But The Colossus shows listeners what RJD2 has been getting at the whole time. Most of the album’s songs have lyrics, but RJ treats the vocal track like another instrument, using vocals to support the instrumentals instead of the other way around. And as he explains in an overdone Cockney accent on “Salud 2,” he’s “assembled a healthy bunch of folks who are much more talented than (he is)” to lend their voices to the album.
As if ambient instrumental hip-hop electronica wasn’t enough of a mouthful, RJ has added even more styles to The Colossus. Single “Games You Can Win” has somewhat of a retro-soul feel, with Ethiopian-born singer Kenna crooning “Keep your mouth shut ’til you get in / And only play the games you can win.” Only its gentle chimes keep the track in the realm of twinkly trip-hop.
“A Son’s Cycle” is the hardest-rapping RJD2 song yet — its bass line is simple and its electronic embellishments minimal, letting guests The Catalyst, Illogic and NP provide a heavy rhythmic atmosphere.
The pan flute melody and the worldly drum beat of “Tin Flower” adds Andean flair to what could almost be a track by lounge-music buddies Thievery Corporation.
“Giant Squid” also has a Thievery-esque global infusion. Above a simple pulsing beat comes a synthesized plucked instrument that sounds like a harpsichord or early guitar. Whatever it is, it dominates the last minute of the track with an intense solo the likes of which have never been heard before.
But unlike Thievery Corporation, RJD2 doesn’t write background music. His songs have enough exciting buildups and powerful backbeats to stand on their own, and while some of the tracks on Colossus wouldn’t be out of place on a movie soundtrack, they create imagery that begs the listener’s attention.
At times catchy (“The Glow”), at times kitschy (“Walk With Me”), but neither too ridiculous nor too serious, The Colossus could easily have spread its focus too wide and lost all cohesiveness. But something holds it together — maybe the thick production, maybe the delicate chimes that pop up on several songs.
Penultimate track “The Stranger” has the smoothest buildup on The Colossus, as a funk-infused melody is gradually overcome by a choral motif with power that grows over four minutes. It represents all that The Colossus is: animated and dynamic, drawing its influences from unexpected places and putting it all together in a creative way. With The Colossus, RJD2 has carved out a niche for himself in the all-encompassing genre that is good music.