Why doesn’t Pitchfork talk about Cunninlynguists? Why does it seem like, in the decade or so that this Kentucky rap group has been releasing fantastic long-players to amorous fans, that not one major publication has cared enough to review any album they’ve released, let alone acknowledge their existence? It seems like, somewhere around 2002, Cunninlynguists dropped off the radar of the mainstream media. And it’s borderline criminal that, as a result, a release as perfect as their newest, Oneirology, will not reach the ears of people that haven’t already been tuned in to the live updates of the southern rap circuit.
I wouldn’t be so frustrated about this travesty if Oneirology had turned out how I had expected it to. Last year, the group’s producer and resident white guy, Kno, released his first solo album, Death Is Silent. The record had a sound that was clearly his, in line with what he had been doing with his main group. However, the album relied too heavily on trite boom-bap percussion and old-timey samples to support the already mediocre rhymes of both Kno and his guests. The result was something that came off as more referential than nostalgic, more notable in my mind for featuring a sample of Kanye West’s “Lost in the World” a week before My Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped than anything ability-related.
In retrospect, Death Is Silent seems to have worked in Kno’s favor. Now, the album sounds like an exaltation of the man’s middling tendencies, cleaning his creative pallet so he can craft an album that looks to the future as much as it does the past. Constantly, Oneirology’s production presents a new package in familiar wrapping. First song “Predormitum” ends its measures with Notorious B.I.G.’s famous first line in “Juicy”, but its presence is made to serve a purpose, a key word omitted in order to introduce the album’s recurring theme (more on that later). The drums of Oneirology have a musty touch that could be considered boom-bap, but they are tactile, crisp and far from repetitive. The album relies on the pre-recorded hooks of many a forgotten ‘60’s rock group and there is even an outright rip of an Outkast song at the end of “Hard As They Come”. However, not once do these borrowings come off as creative theft. Instead, the incorporation of these samples gives them newfound meaning, and Oneirology succeeds at the seemingly impossible task of building a classic from the classic material of others.
If it sounds like I’m trying to justify the album as opposed to praising it, I only intend to briefly rebuke the main argument people have against Cunninlynguists before getting into Oneirology’s original material. A song like “Murder”, whose hook revolves around a frail voice singing “If I could get away with murder / I’d take my gun and I’d commit it,” could have been a predictable dirge on Death Is Silent, but here it makes a complete stylistic turnaround, glamorous synths and lively bass painting a truly enchanting night on the town. Big K.R.I.T. sounds oddly at home in this glitz and glamour, his opening verse more buoyant here than anywhere on his newest mixtape. “Enemies With Benefits” is nearly tear inducing in its saintly beauty, chimes and a choir creating an angelic backdrop for Kno’s own filtered vocals, which sound like that of M83’s Anthony Gonzalez. Oneirology is composed of arrangements all vastly rich and vivid, probably the best beats Kno has ever made.
But back to Kanye for a second. That Death Is Silent sampled a song that had not been released yet is indicative of Cunninlynguists’ obsession with timeliness, a defining quality of the lyrical content of Oneirology that portrays the group as fanatical digesters of pop culture. “Here’s you jacking off to Halle Berry on the shitter / And firin’ a nigga ‘cause he checkin’ on his Twitter / You mad ‘cause ain’t nobody taggin’ you in all them pictures / Well here’s a good one of you taggin’ your wife’s sister,” goes one of Deacon’s particularly grin-inducing lines on the profane “Get Ignorant.” Even if people won’t know what Twitter is in a decade, the cathartic message of a co-worker going intellectually postal on a boss will be well-conveyed, not only because it’s scathing and precise, but because Kno masterfully injects a guy screaming “No!” in the pauses between Deacon’s rants.
Elsewhere, the group strikes gold in finding profundity in profanity. Cunninlynguists have always been filed under “Conscious hip-hop” and Oneiorology has plenty of that, but the group works best when it takes conceited themes and turns them into something strangely arresting. The best example of this is “Enemies With Benefits.” Although it features that gorgeous production mentioned before, it’s a song basically about fucking the woman you hate, a topic I’m sure Gucci Mane could turn into a heaping pile of shit. However, with this prompt, the group comes up with the album’s most memorable lines, the guys trading off verses that masterfully exaggerate just how bad this girl is but just how good she is in bed. “She might literally love me to death,” Natti reflects. “We had a stairway to heaven ‘til I fell down the steps.” “I get the cleanest dome,” Kno retorts. “I mean it holmes. She never be alone ‘cause she be at home.”
Oh yeah, and Oneirology has a theme, which is dreams (Oneirology is the study of dreams if you haven’t looked it up by this point). With the current political climate, one can get some impression of what such a thread might entail (“This shit don’t change like if Obama would’ve lost,” Deacon says at one point), but the truth is the album explores all aspects of the dream. From the mechanical explanations in its interludes to the mythological description in penultimate track “Hypnopomp”, the subject matter is taken very seriously, creating a sly concept album that never displays its intentions so obtusely as to distract from the actual music. Oneirology balances this hodgepodge of motifs and brilliant talents in a way that allows the group to experiment and still sound poised and cohesive. It’s an exceedingly professional album in this sense, one that makes a point to never strive for one overarching statement. The great irony is that, as a result, it’s an accidental magnum opus. It sells an admirable statement by trying as hard as it can not to.