Who could have guessed that a white DJ-producer from Ohio, named after a Star Wars robot, would emerge as one of hip-hop's most exciting solo artists? Then again, RJD2's new album is so wonderfully eclectic, far-ranging, and ambitious that it feels reductive and inaccurate to even call it hip-hop, though that's no slam on the genre. Like Andre 3000's The Love Below, RJD2's Since We Last Spoke bends hip-hop-informed techniques and sensibilities toward an end result that often bears only a passing resemblance to rap. Also like Andre 3000's solo debut, RJD2's latest seems to dabble in just about every other genre: It doesn't contain any deranged polka or death metal, but that may be all it's missing. And, again like Andre 3000, RJD2 boldly tackles audacious new sounds and styles with the assurance of someone who's worked extensively in them his entire career.
Since We Last Spoke finds RJD2 sounding like some blessed creature who's able to tune in every radio station in the world, past and present, and mix them together into a cohesive whole. For all its adventurousness and genre-mashing, the album has a surprising pop sensibility. It relies on sturdy songcraft as much as RJD2's trademark moody soundscaping, and it should prove a breakthrough album not just for its star, but for the entire DJ-as-instrumentalist subgenre.
On the lead-off title track, for example, the meticulous interplay of a piano-dominated groove, ethereal cooing, and unexpectedly warm retro-futuristic synthesizer waves deftly occupies the places usually reserved for sung or rapped verses and choruses. RJD2's skill at tweaking voices until they sound like spirits echoing through time animates the lush "To All Of You," which initially sounds celebratory, but soon delves into despair before concluding with an unexpected burst of antic, old-school scratching.
Morphing effortlessly from twee, fragile, vaguely retro dream-pop to haunted, dusty soul to driving rock, Since We Last Spoke should cross over into unexpected places, rocking coffeehouses and dorm rooms as well as clubs and live venues. Jam Master Jay famously proved that a DJ could be a band, but RJD2's brilliant career illustrates that a DJ can be the whole damn show, and a remarkable one at that.