September 26, 2010

Kool Keith - Black Elvis / Lost In Space (August 10, 1999)

In 1999, "Kool" Keith Thornton had planned on releasing two projects on the same date.  One of them was an over-the-top serial killer fantasy project from a newly-conceived alias, Dr. Dooom, which was to be distributed by an independent label overseen by longtime collaborator Kutmasta Kurt.  The other was a tad bit more experimental, though: Keith had managed to sign a contract with one of the major labels (Ruffhouse/Columbia, home of Nas, Cypress Hill, and the Fugees), and was going to self-produce (for the very first time) and release the elaborately-named Black Elvis / Lost In Space, because why the hell not, right?

Unfortunately, major label interference got in the way, pushing the release date back by a few months, resulting in Kool Keith appearing to be merely prolific and not also schizophrenic.  Although Keith would probably have welcomed the negative attention regardless: this is the same guy who made up a false history of being a patient in Bellevue when he thought that a reporter wasn't paying attention to a word he was saying, and instead of disputing it immediately, he embraced the lie.  (He also thanks his "evil twin brother" Dr. Dooom in the liner notes of Black Elvis / Lost In Space.)

Perhaps assuming that Kool Keith's fans weren't exactly legion or anything, the marketing department at Ruffhouse paid zero attention to the project; aside from shooting one video (which barely got any airplay on MTV) and producing a couple of print ads, it was up to Keith to promote the album.  And he clearly noticed: upset with the entire process, he even recorded a couple of songs venting his frustration.  One of them, "Release Date", even somehow made it onto early copies of Black Elvis / Lost In Space as the lead-off track: it's obvious that almost nobody was paying any attention at the label, except for the guy that had it removed from the final cut.

Unsurprisingly, Black Elvis / Lost In Space sold almost zero copies.  Also unsurprisingly, Kool Keith walked away from his major label contract, retreating back into the land of independence, where at least he could release his many albums on his own schedule, and with as many labels as he saw fit.

I say "almost zero copies" because I honestly feel that I own one of the only discs that Keith was able to sell, thanks to some extremely poor distribution.  (Even Dr. Dooom's First Come, First Served ended up in chain stores such as Best Buy and the now-defunct Circuit City: I had to go out of my way to find a project from a fucking major label at a mom and pop shop.)  But the liner notes from Black Elvis / Lost In Space (which, yes, features Kool Keith wearing an Elvis wig because he can) are pure gold.  In addition to containing a flyer to order Keith merchandise such as hoodies, t-shirts, Black Elvis wigs, temporary tattoos, action figures, and yo-yos (I'm almost certain that none of that shit ever existed in the first place, but I'm still tempted to see what a Kool Keith skateboard (also available) looks like), our host burns several bridges in an insane manner.  For instance, he takes the record label Tuff City to task for lying about receiving authorization from Keith to release his music, he calls out anonymous rappers who stole all of his concepts (such as wearing masks, wigs, and capes; referring to themselves as a "doctor" and coming up with multiple personalities; and so forth), he trashes his former apprentice Sir Menelik (who appeared on Dr. Octagonecologyst), and he thanks his own former crew, the Ultramagnetic MC's, and "their imaginary comeback album" (which eventually happened, although not in the form most of us would have preferred). 

He also thanks, in a non-backhanded manner, his own aliases (if you'll recall, he has a shitload of them; he could probably populate a planet with all of his fucking personas), college radio, his manager, a bunch of porn stars, his "celebrity fans" such as Donald Trump, Jerry Seinfeld, and Monica Lewinsky, and then takes the time to name-drop a bunch of rappers that he actually likes, such as Master P, C-Murder, and Mia X (apparently, Kool Keith loved the No Limit Records empire at this time), Do or Die, 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy (the fuck?), The Prodigy (not really that surprising), Madonna, James Brown, Prince Paul, and Brotha Lynch Hung.  So, once again, the dude is clearly out there, as if the album's title didn't tip you off.

Yeah, I think I've filled enough space for a write-up that will receive approximately five comments anyway.

Keith aims a ton of rhetorical questions (some of which are quite funny) at nobody at particular before kicking a quick verse. This rap album intro was nonsensical (it ends with somebody else's disembodied voice tasking our host with not being branded as an outright hater), but then again, so is Kool Keith.

Hilariously, Black Elvis / Lost In Space reverses its very own titular implications, so the Lost In Space program plays out first. Keith's production has never been as clean and concise as it is on this album: this could be a result of major label meddling, which means that, maybe, the majors aren't all evil overlords wreaking havoc on their talented employees. (Who knew?) Keith spits out gibberish space terms in an attempt to sound intelligent, which he admittedly is, but he ends up sounding obtuse, and the hook (performed by Black Silver, Keith's coworker in the Analog Brothers and also one of the major musicians behind the scenes on this project) sucks. But fuck it, the beat sounded pretty goddamn good.

Here's an example of how Keith's unfiltered thoughts can result in a muddled mess. Thornton's beat is flat-out awesome: the man has created a masterful post-apocalyptic walk in Central Park, as you look around at the destruction in the hope that you'll chance upon other survivors so that your loneliness won't become more deafening than it already is. Keith's rhymes are even atypically clear. However, he's loaded the instrumental with agonizing sound effects, terrible ad-libs, and a hook that consists only of repetition of the song's title, which is apropos to nothing. What a waste.

Aside from the fact that Keith isn't talking about serial killing, this would have fit in better on Dr. Dooom's First Come, First Served (if it wasn't called “Livin' Astro”, anyway). Keith is at his most appealing on here, linking non-sequiturs together with the aid of a fast-paced, punchy beat that is among the man's very best creations. The lone video commissioned for the project was for this very song, but I've never actually watched it. “Livin' Astro” is one of the best solo tracks Keith Thornton has done and will ever do. There, I said it.

And then he presents listeners with this shit. Okay, that last sentence was a bit harsh. This song isn't completely horrible: in fact, for one of Keith's trademarked soliloquies aimed at the female audience that simply does not exist for our host, this isn't terrible. But the hook kills the mood, as Kool Keith has paid some tone-deaf production assistant to coo the song's title in an effort to be cute. While the image of a “monkey-green rag-top Seville” is kind of goofy, this track is a bore.

To my knowledge, this was Roger Troutman's last recorded appearance: shortly after his performance, he was killed by his own brother as part of some sort of financial dispute or something (his brother later turned the gun on himself). The founding father of the Auto-Tune movement as we know it is  (although Roger's vocal distorter of choice was the Talkbox) is represented in a very respectful manner, and in some strange sort of homage, Keith spits double-time over a bounce track and does so impressively. Roger is better known to younger hip hop heads as “the guy who sang the hook on 2Pac's 'California Love'”, but this ends up just as good of a tribute to the late lead singer of Zapp.

Keith begins this track with an abnormally acute observation: all of the electronic gadgets people carry everywhere are slowly turning us all into robots. (Technically, he's referring to “voicemail” and “pagers” as examples of what robots carry, but this song is from 1999: eleven years on, we've only gotten worse.) Which makes the half-thought-out chorus absolutely hilarious, as Keith gives up on a simply repeating the title and instead sings “La la la la la la”. However, the verses themselves fail to explore this theme any further: we are subjected to a typical harsh verbal beatdown, one that listeners should skip entirely.

As the man lives in a fantasy world in which the only other hip hop artists around are Motion Man, Ice-T, and his various shitty weed carriers, seeing Kool Keith acknowledge that other rappers actually exist is an event in and of itself. Being from the old school (lest we forget the man's humble (ha!) beginnings as part of the Ultramagnetic MC's), it makes sense that Keith would secure a guest spot from someone else from the same era: Sadat X from Brand Nubian. So it's too bad that this song sucks your father's nut sack with a child's bendable straw from Chick-Fil-A . Sadat and Keith never fully mesh with each other (I still don't believe they have ever met) over this shitty beat. This could have been interesting, but you could come up with a better collaboration yourself by mashing Keith and Sadat solo songs together at random.

Black Elvis / Lost In Space's second intro, ostensibly to introduce the Black Elvis program for the evening, features Kid Capri for no real reason. But, unlike the first intro, this one only lasts twenty-five seconds. So there you go.

If this is what Black Elvis is going to sound like, then I would like someone to shoot me into space, please. Kool Keith's Black Elvis persona sounds suspiciously like every other Keith Thornton character ever: he comes across as a faceless goon who complains a lot about hip hop without ever offering any real solutions. Hey, kind of like bloggers! I bet Keith would be one ridiculously prolific blogger, if he had the time and wasn't so addicted to porn and stuff.

The hook on here is ridiculous, but not in a funny way: the random references to “remote control alligators” lands squarely in the “heading in the wrong direction” field. Save for that, Keith's furious flying barbs connect more often than not, except when he decides to rhyme the alphabet (giving up after the letter “s”, anyway), right before chastising other rappers who have bitten his style. Not terrible, but not great.

Starts off fairly stupid (the phrase “Keith Turbo”, which will probably become the man's next alias, is recited in lieu of an actual hook), but midway through Thornton grabs your attention with a slight beat switch and some hilarious boasts (“I could throw a hundred thousand pound walrus right through the wall!”; “Mad like five gorillas in the vocal booth!”) that force you to listen to the second half, at least. Sadly, the track as a whole never quite reaches the level of the boasts, but the song isn't a total loss: you two can use the walrus line to update your Facebook statuses, and everybody will think you're a fucking genius. Everybody except Keith Thornton, that is.

Here's another song aimed at the mythical female audience, but this is actually more in line with Dr. Octagon's “Girl Let Me Touch You” in that it actually works, except for Keith's attempt to jump-start his first verse abruptly by shouting “I like your pretty eyes!” from out of nowhere. Like most rappers, Kool Keith feels that he can do a better job of taking care of your woman than you can. (I'm waiting for the first guy to knock a rapper the fuck out for even mildly suggesting that he is less of a man.) Keith's third verse takes a right turn into stalker territory, which was icky, but this was still okay.

This high-concept track features Keith Thornton (who appears to have dropped the Black Elvis persona entirely) as a newly-promoted high-ranking officer at some unnamed corporation (that, apparently, both sells cars and signs artists, if you take these lyrics lyrically, and honestly, it's more fun when you do) who is a bit demanding on his secretarial pool. I would pay money to watch a basketball team owned by Kool Keith, but aside from that one-off line, this song is fairly bland, thereby overriding our host's unusually forced couplets. Oh well.

Yes, Motion Man's guest spot is actually credited like that in the liner notes. Even though his previous collaborations with our host post-Dr. Octagonecologyst were uniformly entertaining, this one doesn't fare quite as well. In fact, it sounds fucking awful. The biggest shock was the third verse, performed by an unknown and uncredited guest artist whose lines are much more memorable than either of the two stars, not because they were any good or creative, but because he uses the word “fucking”, which made me realize that Black Elvis / Lost In Space is actually a swear-free excursion otherwise (unless you believe “tits” to be a curse word). Pass.

Keith's instrumental is among his most accessible, so much so that he could have made some good money off of it had he sold it to some other Z-grade rapper on a different major. (I'm thinking Memphis Bleek, for some strange reason, although I'm aware that he is no longer on a major label.) The hook is garbage, but (say it with me now) this is a Kool Keith album, after all. This sounded pleasant enough, but I completely forgot all about Keith's declaration of dominance over all other rappers roughly ten seconds after the track faded out.

Keith Thornton ends Black Elvis / Lost In Space with aggressive taunts over a lazy instrumental, with a nonsensical hook nailing the epitome of a Kool Keith chorus. On Keith's best tracks, his ridiculous boasts incite disbelief and laughter (such as “I run rap like Mayor Koch” from “Livin' Astro”), but on his worst ones, you're left wondering why he doesn't simply proofread his lyrics first. Meh.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Kool Keith's major label debut is disappointing at best, which is a shame when you consider how well Black Elvis / Lost In Space started off. Keith's clean-sounding production actually lacks the heart that the man's best (non-self-produced) work possesses: only when others reign in Keith's sheer randomness can the man's brilliance behind the mic be fully appreciated. As a companion piece to Dr. Dooom's First Come, First Served, this album...well, let's be honest, the two projects only barely share an artist in common. Kool Keith's first major label album eschews accessibility for esoteric navel gazing at the expense of a growing fanbase. While Keith wouldn't have it any other way, that doesn't mean the fans that he still has don't deserve better. Black Elvis / Lost In Space is simply a concept album (okay, two different concept albums) gone awry.

BUY OR BURN? Burn this one. Aside from “Livin' Astro”, there isn't anything on here that you should throw your grandfather down a staircase just to get to faster.

BEST TRACKS: “Livin' Astro”


Catch up on Kool Keith's many aliases by clicking here.


  1. I don't know much about Kool Keith (safe for of course Ultramagnetic MCs' first album). But I usually listen to the music while I read the review and his rhyme style and lyrics are quite interesting. And this review led me to read Dr. Octagon and I checked out the album and really enjoyed it.

    So you know... those reviews of artists that deserve attention that get little attention do sometimes work. And thanks for putting me onto Kool Keith.

  2. SNL era Eddie MurphySeptember 27, 2010

    Sadat X on a bad song? I don't believe it.

    About that Bellevue thing, some sources still claim that he was actually there and that the story has been authenticated by external sources.

  3. A shout to Brotha Lynch Hung? Nice!

    Anyways, I really need to check out "First Come, First Served". Not only is the title my exact thought on the whole chivalry bullshit this world is controlled by, but he's also a cannibal it seems!

    Big ups to cannibalistic music which is why I love Brotha Lynch! :)

  4. I've never really listened to Kool Keith, is it worth getting anything else by him? Also, could you possibly review Die, Rugged Man, Die by RA the Rugged Man? It's a great album but very few people have heard of it. I sent you an e-mail about it but from reading the comments on other posts it appears you don't use that e-mail adress. Another great review Max!

  5. Mr. AquariusSeptember 27, 2010

    Your most spot on review yet. I feel the same way on just about damn near everything you said. Kudos.

  6. James - pretty sure I responded to your e-mail request. If I didn't, I'm sorry. Honestly, though, sending an e-mail request works a lot faster than leaving a comment on another artist entirely.

    Thanks for reading!

  7. Sorry 'bout that.

  8. "All the Time" is a dope beat because he basically jacked Faith Evans' "You Used To Love Me" produced by Chucky THompson.

    Still love Keith and this album

  9. I was the other person that bought this album in 99/2000.

  10. Idiot reviewer... one of the best rap CD's of all time

  11. There are a few tracks that aren't flawless but this is by far my favorite Kool Keith record. It's one of my favorite albums, period. It took me a long time to get into but after it hit me it was on constantly. Citing "obtuseness" seems like a weird negative on a Kool Keith record. Isn't that one of the main reasons we love him?

    The production is very strong on this record, but I think lyrically and flow-wise, this is Keith in top form. Every album after this his flow seemed to have the same cadence, without any light and shade, like he wrote some good lyrics but couldn't be bothered to push the flow.