Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed
ime will pass, more records will be made, the face of hip-hop will change, tectonic plates will shift, and white rappers will still be a joke. In a medium so deeply engrained in African-American culture, the Caucasian rapper remains an unseemly anomaly. And why shouldn’t they be, with a hallowed tradition that includes creative (and critical) abominations like Vanilla Ice, Snow, and MC Paul Barman? For whatever reason, the only representation of this niche by mainstream culture has come in the form of the aforementioned artists, as well as in countless movies, television shows and commercials; in them one finds the same ridiculous and tired stereotype: the geeky white guy clumsily appropriating Black culture. But then there’s Rjyan Kidwell.
Through his wickedly entertaining and utterly sincere live performances, Kidwell, a.k.a. Cex, subverts his “Black Sheep of IDM” personae into something far more compelling: a scene stealing (and baiting) hip-hopper, intent on exposing the faddish pretenses of the hierarchy-inundated indie rock scene. This is something, however, that can’t merely ride on Kidwell’s sincerity and charisma alone. What makes Cex convincing is his bypassing of the white rapper role. He uses hip-hop not as a means of mocking the genre or attracting attention to himself; he uses it as a genuine vehicle for this thoughts and emotions, just as anyone else would with rock or punk. Conversely, he can have fun the same way.
Tall, Dark And Handcuffed is the first recorded document of Kidwell’s forays into hip-hop, and shares a number of similarities to the Streets’ Original Pirate Material, the Mercury Prize-nominated debut from bedroom-bound MC/beatmaker Mike Skinner. Although similar themes are explored on both records (most prominently self-realization/justification), Original Pirate Material is an infinitely more ascetic record, and thus, feels more urgent and critically viable. Handcuffed, on the other hand, splices its earnestness with a tangible sense of irreverence and exuberance.
Aided and abetted by a cast of characters including Shudder To Think’s Craig Wedren and MC’s Height, Bow n’ Arrow, and Tony Hilfiger, Cex reels off fourteen tracks that will have you laughing, cringing, thinking, and bobbing in tandem. The obvious pitfall here is that this record ostensibly originates from a live setting, where it ultimately flourishes. Will you routinely spend an hour listening to these songs? No. But when you do, you’ll be greeted with the stirring work of an awfully talented young writer.
“Brutal Exposure” sets the template for the album. References to phonies, critics, expectations, entrapment, school and surreally riotous wordplay (that proves to be imminently quotable) abound. The beats on the album are predominantly well done, but rarely prove to be totally striking outside of the lyrical setting. In the end, however, it’s a menial gripe.
As the record progresses, more of Kidwell’s manifestations rise to the surface. On “Good Morning, Universe”, one of the most confessional tracks present, he ruminates on his relative success and moderate visibility, as well as his choice of profession (“And all I’ve got is birds chirping/red Sharpie circles around my words/simply converting all my thoughts to worthless noise”). “Childhood of A Leader” finds Kidwell working at a photo shop, looking for insight on society through its quotidian snapshots, and eventually coming out more distressed than before. Closer “And Handcuffed” is the most jarring and barren song on the record, even recalling some of Eminem’s tamer moments. Yet in the hands of Kidwell, it doesn’t seem whiny or forced, but poignant; however, whether or not we as listeners want to hear it is more heavily debatable.
On “Petty Heads” and “Ghost Rider”, Cex is at his most derisive, rapping about his juvenile tactics and affinity for BMX bicycles, respectively. “Rider”’s call and response chorus (indeed the crown jewel of the live Cex experience) is framed by an angular beat that effectively adds to its cheeky undercurrents. It’s here that Rjyan Kidwell disappears and Cex emerges in all his half-nude, Rec-Spec’d glory. Songs like these are what deter the record from becoming the overly indulgent outpour of emotion that it very well could have been. The fact that they might not pack the punch of their live counterparts simply comes with the territory. (Only on “One Cex” does this become troublesome.)
It doesn’t all work though. The explicit sexuality of “Wrist Elbow” feels cheap and unnecessary; it’s the only time on the album that one feels like Kidwell is beginning to scratch the surface of bling-bling cliches, and it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. While “Cuts” and the Dr. Octagon-like “Gigolo Knights” are hardly bad, their inclusion here is merely questionable. In the end though, they only mar the album from a critical standpoint; as a casual fan, they sound just fine.
“I can’t wait to see the look on your face when I flip you what’s left of my skeletal middle finger” Cex yells on “One Cex”. It’s really a pretty good summation of his intentions not only with Tall, Dark And Handcuffed, but with everything he does. Kidwell knows that there will always be fans for his work, and it’s only out of that kind of mindset and creative environment that an album like this can grow. Whether or not you choose to mock him is afterthought at best.
Reviewed by: Colin McElligatt
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01