Surrounded By Silence

Z-Trip and Prefuse 73 both managed to become big names in musical subgenres that encourage anonymity. Z-Trip's limited-edition mix Uneasy Listening, Volume 1 made him a legend of the mash-up game, quickly becoming a sought-after collectible. Meanwhile, the moody electronic soundscapes of cult hero Prefuse 73 straddle the line between hip-hop and electronic music. Having conquered their respective subgenres, both artists set out to win a larger crossover audience with their latest opuses. It doesn't seem entirely coincidental that the title of Z-Trip's major-label debut, Shifting Gears, echoes "Changing Lanes," Kanye West's song about making the risky but lucrative transition from behind-the-scenes beatsmith to spotlight-hogging recording artist. Z-Trip isn't likely to follow West to the top of the charts, but the extremely likeable Shifting Gears shows off the party-rocking skills that have made him a top live DJ.

Shifting away from the surreal juxtapositions of his mash-up work, Z-Trip takes it back to the old school with a cohesive set of collaborations radiating a feel-good, Ronald Reagan-era party vibe. Nostalgia is the name of the game here, whether for the sound and spirit of rap's golden past, or the lovingly fetishized trappings of childhood. And Z-Trip has rounded up a formidable lineup of old-timers (Prince Whipper Whip, Grandmaster Caz) and contemporary cats (Soup of Jurassic 5, Murs, Busdriver, Supernatural) to fulfill his vision. "If you can't relate to this song, you're taking this shit too serious. It's hip-hop, man. It's fucking fun," Murs blusters at the beginning of "Breakfast Club," a song dedicated to the simple pleasures of watching Saturday morning cartoons with a big bowl of sugary cereal. Shifting Gears grows a little dreary toward the end, but its infectious early high spirits show that Z-Trip has taken Murs' words to heart, crafting a giddy throwback that's serious about having a good time.

Where Z-Trip's commercial ambitions take him back to the past, Prefuse 73's lead boldly into the future. "Hide Ya Face"—the monster first single off Surrounded By Silence—offers the perfect combination of visceral hip-hop boom-bap and delicate electronic bleep-bloop, as special guests Ghostface and El-P rampage like Godzilla stomping the Tokyo skyline all over a pitch-perfect Prefuse 73 beat. The disc's standout track proves misleading, however, as for the most part, Surrounded By Silence pushes hip-hop to the sidelines in favor of Prefuse's moody sonic topiary. Distinctive rappers like Aesop Rock and GZA still manage to make their presence indelibly felt, but most of the disc's singers simply float away into the ether like beneficiaries of some strange sonic rapture. Surrounded By Silence is never less than pleasant, but with the exception of "Hide Ya Face," it's seldom more than that either. In the end, the album feels like the answer to the seldom-asked question "If hipster androids with good taste were to own and operate a coffee shop with a vague international sensibility, what kind of music would play there?"

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