Before Little Brother was all the rage, the Cunninlynguists held down the South with their own brand of soulful production and humble-minded lyrics. Kno and Deacon have seen both of their previous albums go into second-pressings, as they plow onward after a two year hiatus with A Piece of Strange (QN5). The third album moves away from the woe-is-me world of underground Rap elitism and pushes towards a higher level of sophistication in lyric and sound.
The descriptions in the boys’ verses have improved immensely. Not only are they talking about more mature subjects, but they’re doing so vividly. Deacon’s accounts of suffering society on “Nothing to Give” are as apocalyptic as Aesop Rock, only with a much more melodic delivery. “America Loves Gangstas” doesn’t fare as well. Though it’s a smart statement, albeit accurate an awkward chorus and costumed deliveries sounds like it actually belongs on a Mack 10 album. “What’ll You Do?” best exemplifies the maturity of the group. Yes, they’re still openly discussing the struggles of being underground but in a new light. This work really builds upon early CunninLynguists gems like “Mic Like a Memory” and “Missing Children.” They’re a few years older, a few steps higher, but the personal relationship Kno and Deacon have with their audience is ever in tact.
Although Deacon has proved himself an accomplished producer, Kno’s work has always stood out on the group work. A Piece of Strange is entirely the music of Kno, and shows a lot of progression from the chipmunk Soul he delved in. Tracks such as “Caved In” don’t rely on the trodden, and incorporate more original singing (courtesy of Cee-Lo) than sampling. Just as in the past, the result is comforting to the ear. Kno remains one of the best in allowing his sound to really live in the past. “Beautiful Girls” has a lot of hisses and pops and uses a sped-up horn loop that shines, despite its simplicity. Still, as needed, Kno proves to be a master of soul-sampling, and finds his own trademark within the movement. Scratch-choruses and a great deal of Gospel and World minded vocals make this his most comprehensive, and proudest work. “Hellfire,” from its snowballing intro to its on-the-spot chopped up beat show how lethal Kno is with records and samplers.
As 2005 gives Southern Hip-Hop its due propers, the CunninLynguists arrive with their best album to date. Fans of Paul Wall and the Nappy Roots should check for the Georgia/Kentucky link that rehashes yesterday’s records with today’s problems as good as anybody doing it.