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Labtekwon makes another album--and reaches for the world

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Next: Baltimore Basquiat and the Futureshock

Ankh Ba

Sometimes not even the moments of seemingly disparate extremes can capture an album’s berth. To wit: “Black Skatepunk”—the lead single from Labtekwon’s latest release Next: Baltimore Basquiat and the Futureshock—lifts its central uneasy motion from Black Flag’s “Damaged I,” the sort of discordant guitars/bass/drums that not even the most mad-blunted producers use for cosmic head trips. Not even when the MC sing-speaks a woozy monologue about the state of rap as he sees it over it.

A few weeks ago, another single, “Wedding Dance,” debuted on 92Q, the local Radio One-owned hip-hop and R&B outlet. This lovely three-and-half-minute joint features a supple, easygoing beat over which Lab nimbly delivers his lines: “I’m like John Coltrane live on Soul Train, my attitude and my point of view/ this mad dude will crush your groove.” It’s a breathless statement of identity, culminating in repeating the line “I want to marry you.” This touching, first-person declaration of love blossoms into a flourish of strings and percussion at the song’s close.

At first blush, “Black Skatepunk” and “Wedding Dance” have absolutely nothing in common sonically, and yet together they barely map the ambition Lab packs into this CD/DVD package. There’s another 21 other tracks on the album, and the DVD includes four sets of videos—not music videos, but something else entirely.

None of the above sounds atypical of the chimeric Lab, who has allied himself with Baltimore’s hip-hop community for nearly 20 years. Throughout that time he’s made music from the heart and spoken directly from his experiences. He has blurred the line between his life and his art because, you presume, one doesn’t exist without the other. He has addressed the death of his father, relationship turmoil, and personal states of mind in his music. He has discussed African culture and religious history in his music. He has bounced from pop culture to African-American thinkers in his music. Sun Ra and Z3 MC, Amiri Baraka and E the poet-emcee, outer space odysseys and Inner Harbor ciphers, Lab’s verbal and musical world can accommodate all.

And, apparently, that wasn’t quite enough. Next isn’t merely the next eccentric mind-blast from one of Baltimore’s many singular artists. It’s Lab putting nearly his mind on display. Musically, Next’s 23 tracks run from sunny afternoon jaunt (the summery bounce powering “Give Thanks and Praise 2010”) to late-night chill (the after-party hi-hat rustle and keys in “Eternal Struggle”), from psychedelic levitation (the nitrous-fumes tapestry floating through “Elevate”) to electric ladylands (the run-on sentence of an electric guitar line squirrelling through the first minute of “Red Akbar 1” before the beat squashes itself into a comfy beanbag chair). If something about the production here catches your ear off guard, wait a moment. It’s just getting started.

No, really: By the time Next winds through its one hour and 10 minutes, the mix or Lab himself injects all sorts of verbal references and sonic allusions. He perfectly utters a valley girl’s “fer sure” in the background of one track. A The Price Is Right sound-effect bummer interrupts an impassioned spoken-word performance that runs over a roiling sea of drums and horns that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1960s free-jazz album. A circular drum-pattern dance bleeds into a hollow-sounding hand-clap punctuating “Faraway Land.” And “Future Shock” turns what sounds like a chunk of glitzy metal into a beat’s building block.

Lyrically, Lab is just as mercurial. “Azed Chant” is a mash note to the creative labor of artists. “Friend” is a no-bullshit sincere discussion of what friendship means. And in a devilish display of intelligence and wit, with “Fung Shwei”—a riff on the Chinese aesthetic principle of blending “heavens” and “earth”—Lab introduces the song with a sermon sample and then speedily dives into a worldly display of surreal wordplay: “Irritable minotaur, she was the black Pat Benetar/ I gave her rhythm like George Clinton and Prince Paul from Venice to Prague/ pull strings like a sitar/ I’m like Rafael Nadal hitting a tennis ball/ skills evolve/ I make the sky fall/ step into my eyeballs.”

A similar idea cornucopia spills into the DVD. It offers four sets of videos: “Vegan Grub” (a veritable DIY guide to the hows and whys of eating vegan, including “The Basics,” “The Breakfast,” “Lab Sammich,” “West Side Salad,” and “Smoothy”), “Nommo: World = Life” (an 18-minute “documentary about the black experience in America,” says the female narrator Nicola Norman, including segments with poets Talaam Acey, Basi Rose, and Mitchell Ferguson), “Next: Downtown 2010” (a 20-minute tour of Baltimore as an urban entity and the minds of its people with musical accompaniment), and “Bonus Video” (a five-minute conversation between Labtekwon and Jazzy Jeff). Consider it Next’s accompanying visual study guide.

That may be the general point here. Next isn’t just an album, but a clarification of purpose. Mahler believed that the symphony must contain the entire world. You get the impression Lab feels the same about hip-hop—and Next is his first stab to try and achieve just that.

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