Given everyday rappers’ proclivity for talking about themselves, it was only a matter of time before Themselves started talking back. Jel and Dose One originally imagined rap’s shadowy alter-ego in the form of Them and released their weirdly awesome self-titled record in the year 2000 before distinguishing, ahem, themselves from Van Morrison and releasing releases forgettable (2002’s The No Music, 2005’s 13 & God collabo with the Notwist, maybe a couple other things I don’t remember). Themselves’ fade from the limelight was concurrent to Jel and Dose germinating with Dax Pierson as the seed at the heart of the ambitious sextet Subtle, whereby they dropped some records loved intensely by many of us here at the Glow. In the now theFREEhoudini seems destined to the same sort of fleeting regard as Themselves’ post-Them releases but is juicy with the pleasure in which these two iconoclasts indulge in the rap genre trope of mixtapes. As Dose is wont to do, everything is taken to the next level after next, landing the listener roundly in the middle of some deep crater on the dark side of solipsism—which, in terms of this odds-and-ends assortment, gives us rap music as analogy for empathetic nonsense. Or for describing rappers as interns, modelships, etc.
I mean, the fact that a Themselves’ mixtape has a track called “Party Rap Sucks” featuring Busdriver is predictable to the point that I start to wonder if these dudes are parodying, ahem, themselves—and then it’s over before I have a chance to categorize it firmly as anything other than a flippant fuck-you. This caustic flippancy characterizes the entire mixtape, really, right down to including the truly awful track with Slug, but it also means that the bursts of brilliance come hard and fast. Tracks advertised as appearing on the upcoming super-official LP CrownsDown bear some trace of the evolution that Subtle’s imposed on the duo’s music, whether it’s the blurry harmonic tones of multi-tracked Doses on “Roman Is as Roman Does” or the distinct way Jel’s overload of sounds and synths churn in “Oversleeping” and “The Mark.” Yet, compared to Subtle, there’s something a little more brutish about this transcendence—as if that group were a rocket that carried Dose and Jel to a different plane and once there they burgled Thor’s hammer so as to lay waste to what they left behind. When Dose starts throwing disses at the end of “Oversleeping” and the music resembles a series of explosions ripping through a factory, you know that Themselves have set their sights on destruction and burning bridges.
Perhaps fittingly it’s some of the most homeless tracks that make the strongest impressions. Dose plays back-up to Serengeti on the glide of “Keys to Ignition,” a testament to heavy bass drum, a few keyboard keys, and a keen sense of dynamics. Serengeti raps like he doesn’t care what he’s rapping about as long as it encompasses as much of everything as possible and still sounds good. “Free & Void” is a drifting terror, a fitting retort in mood to carefree nihilism and that Bill Callahan record; when the layers of noise finally peel off and there’s Dose over pretty much just the drum break proclaiming, “That’s all I got / and the rest is / to waste or not to waste breath,” it’s a rushing relief like Dose just popped a mass of existential angst with a prick of his pen. The anti-commercial triumphalism of “Rapping 4 Money” then reminds us to care about something again, even if that’s just doing stuff because you like to or the possibility of a new cLOUDDEAD record that shines as brightly and simply as this particular track.
It’s closer “Each Ant in Their House,” however, that’s most deserving of having an Album unto itself. Sounding like Odd Nosdam’s best dream ever, the modules of warm trebly noise flow together in shutter-frame motion while the beat swishes and snaps and Dose rises above, pure phoenix. The lithe synth bass hook is unrelenting in its grip, the rapping seamless in its synergy with that grip and the way it flexes as it grows. Ultimately, this is the most potent fuck-you that Themselves could give to the thoughtless body of rap that casts their shadow: undeniable greatness in the form of progress that doesn’t look back once it has torn free from its material limbs.