The Dudley Perkins album A Lil Light began as a studio lark when rapper Declaimea longtime fixture of Madlib and Lootpack's extended familybegan singing hastily improvised lyrics over a laid-back Madlib groove for a charmingly woozy slice of retro soul called "Flowers." That's where it should have ended, but the prolific Madlib was excited enough about the song that he recorded an entire album with Declaime crooning. Unfortunately, Declaime possesses the kind of high-pitched, off-key falsetto screech that unnecessarily frightens small dogs.
Fans of his charming, largely Madlib-produced 2001 full-length solo debut Andsoitissaid have reason to be excited about Declaime's return to rapping on Conversations With Dudley, but it quickly becomes apparent that he can't really rap anymore, either. The earnestness and sincerity that constituted much of Andsoitissaid's guileless charm has devolved into humorless preaching and strident moralizing. As before, Declaime's salvation comes from high-powered production, this time by Madlib's little brother Oh No, who has quietly developed into one of underground rap's most consistent producers.
Last time out, Declaime reinvented himself as a soul singer, but for Conversations, he tries on the persona of an unhinged preacher fusing gospel and blues into a stark, album-length warning about what's to come. Of course, it's hard to knock a rapper for wanting to interject some Old Testament morality into a genre largely dedicated to instant gratification. But the message would go down a lot easier if Declaime's persona didn't so strongly suggest a musical version of someone with a tin-foil hat ranting on street corners about the upcoming apocalypse. Which is a shame, since Oh Nowho produced 12 tracks to Madlib's threelays down one lush, gorgeous groove after another, particularly the ecstatic chipmunk soul of "Heavenbound" and the ethereal, poignant "Dearest Desiree," wherein Declaime sorts through the wreckage of a failed relationship and the impact it has on his beloved daughter. Pairing brilliant production with amateurish lyrics, Conversations With Dudley, like A Lil Light, provides a reminder that great beats are a terrible thing to waste.