Review: RJD2's Dame Fortune

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I WAS FIFTEEN when I first heard “Ghostwriter”. Today it stands as my third favorite song of all time, the album it appeared on, RJD2’s Deadringer, etches out a spot in my top 50. Needless to say, Ramble Jon Krohn was a clear gateway to the music I later discovered. While there were certainly bright spots since his 2002 debut, RJD2, much like DJ Shadow—comparisons between the two have stalked Krohn from the very beginning—has never reached that level of acclaim again. Much of that is due to striking the iron of a scene while it was hot. Another reason is the lack of ambition found on any release since. Every album of his was touted as a “return to Deadringer.” Not necessarily by the musician himself, but the fans, eager to be impressed once more. I’m one of them, and for the first time ever, with his sixth solo LP Dame Fortune on the way, I wasn’t excited. No lead single had me singing the praises of a comeback, no promo push got me raveled in hype, no shtick stuck added to the album’s intrigue (or lack thereof). So no, Dame Fortune is not the next Deadringer, and in many ways it’s one of his worst. But at least I didn’t get my hopes up.

Dame Fortune begins with a tightly-composed synth piece called “A Portal Inward”. More of an ambient piece than actual tune, the track sets a scene that’ll never arrive. Sad, considering the album cover fits its tone perfectly. Minimal, pleasing, with a faint darkness. With the atmospheric aesthetic that allowed the Drive soundtrack to breathe life into a fading genre, the use of synths and bass on the opener had me giddy to see RJD2 pull away from the unvarnished soul that dominated his previous releases. Then “The Roaming Hoard” happened, and everything that RJD2 originalists feared came hurdling back in heartily sung bravado. The tempo and keyboards keep things interesting and, in retrospect, it’s one of the better soul-sapped tracks here, but it still doesn’t make it creatively appealing. Lead single “Peace of What” strives for the same sound, aspiring for poignancy in a political climate that’s as unsure as ever, reaching it in some sense, but musically it’s nothing we haven’t heard Krohn attempt before. The LP isn’t made up entirely of his soul beat mash-up though; the Philadelphia-based producer half-delves into sub genres that force Dame Fortune to become a confusing splotch.

Speaking of the city of brotherly love, RJD2, in his small campaign for Dame Fortune, called the city’s music scene the main inspiration for the record. In many parts, there’s no denying that. The soul tracks are self-explanatory, but then there are cases like the instrumental “PF, Day One” that splurges on weary strings and pianos, or the workmanlike percussion throughout, that chugs along like a train failing to see the end of the railway in sight. Then what explains the cover? You’d expect an artful collage nearing Dadaism, not a futuristic omnipresence akin to Tycho. Tracks like “Your Nostalgic Heart and Lung” answer that. See, this song, stationed towards the end of the LP, brings back the flavor from the synth-laden opener, introducing elements completely unknown to RJD2. It makes a clear case as the best song here, maneuvering through pre-arranged drum loops and eery, kaleidoscopic synthesizers. The song does an incredible job at explaining what the hell is going on here. Because, and it’s obvious one listen through, Dame Fortune struggles with identity. One minute we’re perusing the Philly soul idiom, the next we’re sent to outer space.

That’s not all. As a catch all “The Sheboygan Left” is as left field as it comes. Clocking in at just under five minutes, the song never finds a perspective, essentially working as a summary of the album itself. With some nondescript drums segueing into a pinnacle RJD2 soul chorus, complete with those background vocals and trumpets we all know and love, then derailing into a sloppy, hesitating sitar solo, “The Sheboygan Left” stands to discover as many fields of interest as it can. While it’s inconsistent, at least it makes me believe that. I’ll take something that dares to subvert convention over a standard soul track that is hindered by conformity. After the midway point, the three sing-a-long’s left all fail to do anything interesting. “We Come Alive”, “Saboteur”, and “Band of Matron Saints” find themselves in such bland territory that saying they’re a dime a dozen doesn’t do soul music justice. With RJD2 behind them, it seems fabricated, lifeless, boring. This is a man who’s gotten by on sampling soul, not creating it. The nuance isn’t there, the lyrics are unoriginal, the voices we’ve heard a million times over.

It’s a shame, but until RJD2 realizes he’s the best thing he works with, we won’t get another Deadringer. The producer spends so much time backpedaling to appeal to a different crowd, with a hodgepodge of artists gleaming over his music, that the final result feels manufactured and languished. When RJD2 brings himself to the forefront, pushes his stylized production, taking sonic risks along the way, not concerned over structure, he excels. Hell, “A New Theory” might be the most out of place song here, a two-minute beat collage with revving engines, DJ scratches, and spray paint canister shaking, but the fact it exists shows RJD2 still has it. It’s that stretch of music though, from track four to nine, that proves just how disillusioning Dame Fortune is: Combustible instrumental reminiscent of his past (“The Sheboygan Left”), oddball beat rebelling against its brothers (“A New Theory”), yawn-inducing soul (“We Come Alive”), beautiful ambient orchestral soundtrack to sunlight (“PF, Day One”), yawn-inducing soul part two (“Saboteur”), after-Earth synth barrage best suited for Blade Runner (“Your Nostalgic Heart and Lung”). Actually, extend it to track ten, “Up in the Clouds”, where long-withstanding RJD2 collaborator Blueprint comes in as the sole rapper to labor over death in a melodramatic two-step. Dame Fortune tried to account for everything the producer has done up to this point, forgoing any perspective on ambition or progression. In other words, it catches a talented artist searching for inspiration in all the wrong, but safe, places. C PLUS

Read more of Brian’s writing at his blog, Dozens of Donuts.