I’m not exactly sure how a producer who has credits for Nas, Mobb Deep, Rick Ross and Eminem can still qualify as one of hip-hop’s best kept secrets, but somehow the Alchemist has managed to maintain this status for the last decade. But without a doubt, Russian Roulette is going to change all that. If not for the guestlist that features every single hot indie rapper of the moment (i.e. Danny Brown, Schoolboy Q, Evidence, Fashawn, Roc Marciano, Action Bronson, & Guilty Simpson), then for the chance to flaunt his considerable chops over a patchwork of 30 tracks all sampled from Russian records.
This is a record in the grand tradition of Donuts, Dr. No’s Oxpiriment or the Beat Konducta series, but only in the sense that it’s drawn from one culture, with about 30 or so tracks woven intricately together. That’s as far as the comparisons go. The major difference here is the considerable presence and role of the stellar cast of emcees. The Alchemist weaves them all together into a rich tapestry of electro-jazz and funk that’s laced with a healthy dose (and variety) of straight spitting.
It’s a piece of work that painstaking hours and a huge amount of digging have clearly gone into. So great is the Alchemist’s dedication to his concept that advance copies of the album were only given out as one track MP3s, to ensure that the album is absorbed as it as it’s meant to be heard. It’s an unusual tactic, one that guarantees that Russian Roulette gets the close attention it deserves. However, it also means that it’s hard to talk about the album in anything other than general terms. And generally, Russian Roulette is very good. However, perhaps like the Tarkovsky films that these cyrillic soundscapes conjure up, it can at times be a touch too intense and a bit far out. But every time the cosmonauts take off, a rapper steps in to bring you down to earth. Ultimately, the best way to experience Russian Roulette is as The Alchemist intended; sit down to let it all wash over you.
Perhaps his greatest achievement here lies in the construction, an LP that balances the rappers with the beats into a seamless record. Occasionally it’s too smooth, and the novelty of the vocal samples quickly palls, but invariably there’s a rap, a flip or a hook to bring you back to earth. Why he’s called the project Russian Roulette, I’m not entirely sure – whether it’s because he thinks he’s taking a risk with the record, or it’s the only Russian pun he could come up with. But either way, it’s an oblique reference to a lack of control that he never displays. Russian Roulette should ensure that The Alchemist attains a prominence that while he might not seek, he surely deserves.
- Will Georgi