Nearly a quarter century into his career, DJ Premier has settled into a comfortable niche as one of hip-hop’s most prestigious producers for hire. He’s the collaborator of choice for any rapper looking to demonstrate a commitment to East Coast rap traditions, and though his beats aren’t particularly exclusive (last year alone he contributed them to more than a dozen albums), they’re a reliable highlight of almost any album that features them. With their distinctive bounce and precise repetition, his tracks have a way of making even the most pedestrian rappers sound like greats—and that knack has come in handy in recent years, since unfortunately Premier isn’t backing actual greats like he used to.
Where the producer once worked with in-their-prime legends like Biggie, Nas, Jay-Z, and Mos Def, his 2010 compilation DJ Premier Presents Year Round Records: Get Used To Us could only muster a lineup of middling upstarts, fading old-school vets, and underground also-rans. The compilation also made it clear why Premier works primarily in one-off shots these days: While his production still dazzles in brief bursts, its luster fades over long exposures. That weakness also dogs The Kolexxxion, his new LP with Bumpy Knuckles, the combative rapper formerly known as Freddie Foxxx. A hothead whose claim to fame, like so many underground acts of the ’90s, is having been passed over by fame, Bumpy Knuckles isn’t the first rapper that fans would have chosen for Premier’s first full-length collaboration since the death of his longtime Gang Starr partner Guru, but the two have history and chemistry. The rapper is an old cohort from the Gang Starr days, and his gruff voice and curt delivery nicely complement Premier’s concise loops.
Middle age has done nothing to temper Bumpy Knuckles’ pugnacity. He still raps almost exclusively in boasts, insults, and accusations. He’s as gangsta as ever, he insists, still strapped with a vest of ammo that he’ll eagerly unload on anybody who questions his mettle. On “Shake The Room,” he threatens to take a crowbar to Guru’s controversial late-life associate Solar. On “D’Lah,” he calls out “emotional, industry-ass rappers,” a likely Drake dis that’s certain to go unanswered. If all that thuggery comes across as a little silly from a man his age, it was a little silly the first time around, too. For all his bluster, he’s always been too much of a comic presence to be believable as an actual threat.
With his steadfast commitment to old battle-rap ideals, Bumpy Knuckles is a fitting collaborator for Premier, another ’90s traditionalist who has also shown similarly little interest in updating his style with the times. If not for a few scattered contemporary references, The Kolexxxion could easily pass as a lost album from 1998. That’s the essence of the album’s charm, of course, but also its ultimate shortcoming. Even when The Kolexxxion is good—and it’s usually pretty good—its playbook is so overfamiliar that it’s incapable of truly surprising or exciting.