In the late 80’s and early 90’s, gangsta rap was finding its footing as a specialized, abrasive take on the hip-hop leitmotif. And when you look at the most popular and influential outputs of that era, albums like The Infamous or Quik Is the Name, you begin to notice recurring elements. Yes, the lyricism features a central focus of illegality and violence, but the beats they used to propel their verses were smooth and soulful, sometimes jazzy, a product of the samples that were available at the time. There was no option to create bass lines whose resonance could shatter windows or blow out speakers, and any tinge of airiness was often made with 70’s R&B vocalizations, string sections, and orchestral sampling. But a decade later, the pendulum of makeshift sonic adaptations had swung far from gangsta rap and had hit the softer, hazier glow of hip-hop, a subgenre that’s now penned, “cloud rap”. And though they may not have known it, Doseone, Why?, and Odd Nosdam, collectively known as cLOUDDEAD, would become the pioneers of the experimental cloud rap sound.
Today, hip-hop is experiencing an amalgamation of all of these movements. The hard-hitting gangsta inflections are paired with ethereal production and no one bats an eye. The tones can range from light and airy to dark and harrowing, but the sense of fluidity, often furthered by a hint of drug usage, always remains. At least, that’s what’s become of the sounds now. But fifteen years ago, when the decade of traditional hip-hop was ending, a new wave of experimentation was beginning. The 2000’s ushered in not only a high-caliber approach to sampling through plunderphonics, but also introduced the end of the straightforward production that had become so expected. When you listen to boom-bap heavy albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Enter the Wu-Tang, there’s clear ambition and a sense of discipline and perfection in regard to the delivery of their lyricism, but the drumbeats are often standardized and unspecified. Lyrics were at the forefront, given a clear focus, but it always felt like the instrumentals weren’t equally valued, never expanded to their fullest potential.
But with cLOUDDEAD, it’s impossible to decipher what the trio values most. Every possible element feels scrutinized and considered, packing each of the twelve tracks (or six movements) with a tight, dense exploration of anything and everything that could possibly be considered hip-hop. The history of the creation of cLOUDDEAD isn’t exactly a special one, especially given how frequently and easily independent acts can produce full-length albums now. But the 2001 album is a collection of six 10”, double-sided singles that the group released infrequently in the years leading up to the collection’s release. Done entirely within their apartment, the tracks were recorded, mixed, and “mastered” with RadioShack products and other cheap amenities bought with money the musicians scrapped together. The lo-fi approach certainly aids in the album’s consistently independent and unfiltered sound, but that represents such a small piece of the surrealist intricacies that cLOUDDEAD weaves together.
cLOUDDEAD is a deconstruction of what it means to make hip-hop, deftly crafted through an illusory lens of cloud rap styling. The rapping is the most tangible part of an album with little to easily grab onto, but the more focus you give their lyrics, the less sense they make. Doseone and Why? deliver the majority of the verses, interlocking their voices and wrapping around one another in an echo chamber of confusion. Their delivery is borderline spoken poetry, but throughout the twelve tracks there’s a severe range in the approaches the trio takes in expressing their abstract lyrics, whether that takes the shape of streamlined rapping, sound effects and staccato annunciations, or nasally singing. Even though the vocals are occasionally cited as being grating, cLOUDDEAD’s songwriting still proves to be the most difficult element to decipher.
The lyrics found on cLOUDDEAD work as observations and strewn-together thoughts with little regard for clarity. The songwriting acts as the sonic analog to walking around in a thick fog, one where you only realize how enveloped you are and how expansive it is by exploring its endlessness. On “I Promise To Never Get Paint On My Glasses Again (1)” Doseone raps, “I wonder what my mother looked like pregnant/I’ve classified water damage as art/Ruining things, trilobite out on the town painting things/In accordance with my weird ordinance”. When you listen to it in the context of the song, it doesn’t stand out as an oddity because nothing stands out as a normalcy. The initial musing of wondering what his mother looked like pregnant with him showcases the kind of random introspection that the group hones in on, their scatterbrained unfocused mentality haphazardly jumping from road kill to prank phone calls to familial ties, all given an equally spastic glimpse. But when you think the verse is going to focus on his mother or family, the next unrhymed line talks about the value of water damage, which then bridges the question of where we draw the line of what constitutes as “ruined”. It’s frantic without ever losing its tranquil tone, pairing some of the heaviest subject matter with some of the lightest production to ever grace hip-hop.
And while the lyrics are incredibly dense and obtusely difficult to understand, there are semblances of thematic consistencies throughout the album. Unsurprisingly, death is the most frequent of the trio’s topical explorations. “And All You Can Do Is Laugh. (1)” references the deaths of Bob Ross and a half dozen presidents while the group considers their own mortality. Doseone and Why? slowly rap “my light bulb’s gone grey”, a realization of ever-looming decay. “Jimmybreeze” recounts the thoughts and reflections upon discovering the suicide of a friend Why? knew in art school. And while they never rely on humor to collocate the darkness of the suicide, the production maintains that same unsettling bizarreness that’s seeped throughout all of cLOUDDEAD. As he describes keeping a razor blade under his tongue, the music bounces around vibrantly like a colorful video game soundtrack, until returning to an eerily dark soundscape whose drumbeat is played backwards. No matter how disturbing the lyrical content becomes, the production always returns to its idiosyncratic lightness.
But cLOUDDEAD is an album whose layers and density can never be fully accurately described in writing; it’s an album whose uniqueness can only be understood through abundant listening, though after years of dissection I still don’t fully understand all that the album has to offer. And I probably never will. But Doseone, Why?, and Odd Nosdam offer the same intoxicating perplexities that make the works of Reutersvärd and Escher feel so confusingly entrancing, craving to be solved despite knowing it never can be. cLOUDDEAD functions in the same way Penrose’s triangle does: complete from afar, with a foundation that defies logic and comprehension the closer you inspect it. There are only twelve tracks on this album, but the breadth of suites and movements gives life to what feels like thirty. And just when you think you’ve figured them out, that the hip-hop sound they’ve created is becoming familiar, they throw the purely instrumental “Clouddead Number Five” at you and top it off with “Bike”, whose first half is comprised of its second half played in reverse.
At the time of its release, cLOUDDEAD was noted for its inability to be compared to anything else in hip-hop, granting it poster-boy status in the realm of independence and experimentation. Even today, there’s little that sounds like it in the way it seamlessly captures dark anxiety in a world of cartoonish brevity. And when you look at the peaks of the group’s solo and collaborative careers, it’s obvious that cLOUDDEAD was a culmination of the potentials the three offered, perfectly tied together over 73 minutes. There’s noteworthy elements to Alopecia, or Ten, or The Taste of Rain…Why Kneel?, but they never top the consistent inconsistencies that the group clung to in 2001. It has the same opaqueness that’s made Vaudeville Villain and Madvillainy staples in the history of hip-hop, but where cLOUDDEAD differs most is in its ability to flesh out vocalizations as another layer of instrumentation, blending it all in a swirl of obfuscation. It’s a hip-hop album with a central focus on being anything but a hip-hop album, refraining from redundancies and extrapolating what it means to exemplify innovation without losing its indisputible musicality.
– Zach W.