Carl “Kokayi” Walker once asked his son what he wanted for Christmas. His response: “robots and dinosaurs.” Initially, the Northeast D.C. resident was confused by the innocent request, before realizing that his son might be on to something. As Kokayi sees it, robots are the unfortunate young rappers with a zombie-like lust for all things popular, earning their stripes by emulating others. Dinosaurs, however, are irrelevant creatures and much too old to compete with younger emcees, most of them in their twenties. Kokayi, an elder statesman in the Chocolate City music scene, sits comfortably in the gray area. Granted, he’s no spring chicken, but he’s not ready for the gold watch and retirement home, either (just ask anyone who’s recently attended one of his energetic stage shows). Such is the foundation of Robots & Dinosaurs, a genre blending, mind-altering, middle finger to the somewhat ageist and racist business that Kokayi has endured for more than a decade. The former Opus Akoben front man proves unequivocally that urban music is a game for all ages, and that black people shouldn’t rely solely on hip-hop to express themselves. What results is an amazingly brilliant album that is easily one of the year’s best recordings — not just in the Nation’s Capital, but the entire industry.
Washington, D.C. is an unabashed hip-hop city; from street to street, it seems as if every young person with Nike boots and a composition book is a rapper, or at least aspires to be one. For obvious reasons, Kokayi stands out — not only as a hybrid rocker/emcee, but as a Grammy nominated producer who helps upstarts navigate a saturated entertainment region. Under that premise, it seemed as if Kokayi’s last recording, 2007’s Mass Instructions, was a straightforward salute to the District’s trials and triumphs, and reflective glimpse into his personal obstacles and successes. A song like “Stress!!,” for instance, ensnared its listeners through the clever marriage of thoughtful lyricism and boisterous electronica, which subliminally cradled Kokayi’s fans and kept their heads nodding in the process. But, with all due respect to Mr. Walker’s previous album, it diminishes when compared with the lyrical and sonic genius of Robots & Dinosaurs, which discusses suicide, condemns misogyny, and reminisces about love gone awry, among other topics. Instead of brutally attacking the aforementioned subjects, Kokayi delivers thoughtful messages that not only connect with their intended recipients, but provides everyone a brief glimpse into his surroundings. Quite simply, while Instructions was respectable, Robots is Kokayi’s Illmatic— a masterpiece that will surely be regarded as the artist’s crown jewel, no matter what he records afterward.
Overall, Robots is competent and efficient, much like the aforementioned Nas classic, which is championed for its quick and thorough analysis of inner city blight. While Kokayi’s album is mostly upbeat, it also has a dark and brooding side, none more sullen than “Autumn Rules,” where the artist sings candidly about his fight with depression and thoughts of suicide. “I hold tight to truth and I slice, but not quite through,” Kokayi sings over Oddisee’s moog drums and acoustic guitar. “Only,” with its subdued piano loop, is a tale written from the perspective of a perpetual bachelor. Here, Kokayi sings: “I’m not so lucky with love, yo/I’ve been around a time or two before.” On “Nicotine,” the piano becomes much more chilling and sobering, as Kokayi rhymes about an on-again, off-again love affair that begins at childhood and continues through adulthood. Still, Robots is not entirely moody, as demonstrated by the raucous “RoxTar,” which salutes rock bands in D.C. and beyond, and “Obdare,” the autobiographical centerpiece where Kokayi analyzes his place in music. “Ninety 5,” featuring QN5 label mates Substantial and Tonedeff, is an effective club-ready track about the Interstate 95 road that connects the three artists. (Substantial lives in Baltimore; Tonedeff lives in New York City).
Pundits, tastemakers, and some casual listeners tend to sort artists into their own neat categories. And in some cases, we tend to abandon these entertainers once their talents spill outside our carefully crafted boxes. Mos Def, for example, was heavily criticized for releasing The New Danger, not only because he experimented heavily with blues and rock-n-roll, but because it followed the classic Black On Both Sides, an undeniable staple in hip-hop. Common was also crucified upon the release of Electric Circus, which saw the Chicago emcee rhyming over folk and dance music, and singing alongside his then-girlfriend Erykah Badu. Kokayi, however, has lived outside the box his entire career, thus making it impossible to corner him into one genre. The psych-rock scholar grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and has never been shy about his affinity for electric guitars. Therefore, Robots & Dinosaurs is just another walk in the park for Kokayi. And if nothing else, at least his son got what he wanted for Christmas.