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Chris Keys & Oh No

2012 was a busy year for multifaceted producer/rapper, Oh No.  Releasing his own projects (OhNomite,Dr. No’s Kali Tornado Funk, and the Odditorium EP) and a second full-length Gangrene (Oh No and The Alchemist) release (Vodka & Ayahuasca), Oh No almost did everything that a rapper and producer could do.

Enter Chris Keys, a Bay Area producer with a background in jazz who didn’t even have an EP to his name.  After releasing two impressive singles (“The Dead” and “not2late”), the duo returns with Ashes – the duo’s first full-length collaboration and Chris Keys’ official debut.

The 14-track release features a slew of respected MCs, including Killah Priest, Guilty Simpson and Big Pooh – to name a few – and ever-occurring sound bites that sound like they were recorded during the apocalypse.  The intro, Ashes, starts things off and immediately it’s disappointing that its initial beat wasn’t used for someone to rap over.  Instead we get a hoard of catastrophic soundbites which set up the album’s theme; however, it seems like a missed opportunity and a wasted beat.  Appropriately, the gritty and dark, “Devastation,” is the first track that the listener is exposed to.  The featured Guilty Simpson and Montage One are two notables whose wordplay and delivery balances an exceptional Oh No performance, meshing seamlessly over the track’s dark production; and instantly this is one of Ashes' standouts.  The follow-up, “Knockers,” is a dramatic, string-heavy standout that comes right before the listener arrives at the Rapper Big Pooh collaboration, “Spaceship.” A melodic highlight with woodwinds galore, this track features a bouncy, liquid-like bass that actually sounds like space.

“Now I’m grown, I got plenty to lose / I rock a size 10, but a giant when I move”

“Let’s Go” is a party track built on a rave-like beat that compliments the piece’s theme of reckless escapism and money making.  “Big Thangs” features a soulful loop that gets noticeably redundant about one minute, and includes possibly the worst Oh No performance on the release:

It’s gigantic, enormous, you know how we do things / when we move things / like brass knuckle rings holding two canes / homey, I’m on some new things / open the curtain, show me how you pull strings”

Composed from a lackluster composition, “The Light,” presents average-at-best showings from all rappers, including guests, LMNO and Declaime (aka Dudley Perkins).  Although not great, the suspenseful production and hopeful, but grim, subject matter compliment each other, as does each lyricist.  “Feet” is a dark but optimistic tale of a man working to survive amid walls and struggles.  Contrasting in every way except for the focused and ever-present gloom-like production of the project, “Block Banger,” features Oh No in one of his greatest moments heard here.  The track also showcases Wildchild (Lootpack) and his signature run-on delivery that works for the beat.  “The Picture” stands as the lone lovey-dovey offered; it’s music and lyrics are distinct from anything else presented thus far.  As with “The Picture,” “Strangers” doesn’t fit the album theme musically.  However, this is possibly the best – and most complete – song on Ashes, as it’s production (from Oh No) and Oh No – lyrically – are spot on.  “The End (Funeral),” with its climatic construction, naturally closes out the release, and features the great Killah Priest.  The “Amazing Grace” Youtube sound bite is a different, but nice, touch.  “Mayhem” and “Give It Up” are two bonus tracks that rounds out Ashes.  The former could’ve worked well as a regular in the album’s tonal theme, while the percussive and organ-heavy latter doesn’t and isn’t nearly as impressive.

Clocking in at a little over 44 minutes, Ashes, is a substantial effort that nevertheless leaves more to be desired (better production and consistent lyrical showings).  A listener may leave this album feeling unimpressed with the musicality of a guy who apparently has a background in jazz theory.  Ashes isn’t terrible project by any stretch; it’s just that more is expected from a collaboration between a proven leftfield vet and a jazz cat--who the more-than-capable vet respects so much that he gave up an album’s worth of sonic responsibilities – a fact that can’t be taken lightly.

- Julius Thompson