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January 12, 2007

Ultramagnetic MC's falter in unattractive comeback

It’s hard to get excited about comeback albums anymore. Even coming out of retirement and cheating on Beyoncé isn’t doing it for the American record-buying public. And if Jay-Z isn’t making the kind of dent he used to with his comeback album, everyone else must be having it twice as hard.

So Ultramagnetic MC’s haven’t picked a great time to end their nine-year break from putting out records. With Best Kept Secret, the newest release from the group, the rappers make a bid to renew the relevance of Ultramagnetic, which was last important as one of the late ’80s / early ’90s new-school hip-hop pioneers.

Their 1988 album Critical Beatdown is considered a masterpiece by many, standing out despite having been released in a year when hip-hop was experiencing a surge of great albums.

Unlike, say, a Doors reunion tour, this album includes the original lineup of the group: Ced Gee, Moe Luv, TR, and the most famous member of the group, Kool Keith. Kool Keith, known for complex, scattered, fecal matter–obsessed rhymes, isn’t nearly as central as one might hope on Secret, and the other members of the group aren’t able to fill in the charisma that permeates the best of Keith’s solo releases. He is the only one from Ultramagnetic MC’s to enjoy much success outside of the group, releasing albums under the guise of various bizarre alter egos.

The press release accompanying the CD claims the record was made without “outside influences” and with substantial creative freedom. As a result, there is a sonic unity to Best Kept Secret that is missing from most rap albums.

The thick field of electronic beats provides a solid foundation for the album; no track has an especially engaging or outstanding sound, but they are all consistent, competent, and would have been adequate if the record had compelling lyrics to go along with them.

The latest Clipse album is an example of something that succeeds at using minimal, pounding electronic beats to its advantage in a way Best Kept Secret does not.

The complexity characteristic of Ultramagnetic lyrics would have been the real place where these agile rappers should have been able to recapture the magic of their past work. The terminally nonsensical rapping of Keith and Ced shines through occasionally on Secret, but generally their aggressively weird attacks on the mainstream haven’t developed enough since their heyday to compete with contemporary analogues like MF Doom. The compressed, machine gun–fast processions of syllables crop up here and there, but it doesn’t seem novel enough to have anything to say to us anymore.

The rapping on the album is comfortably delivered in a way rapping shouldn’t be. These are vets delivering what seems to be a compromise between the sounds of rap today and the unique style they once brought to it.

It ends up accessible but unsurprising, without any kind of hunger or immediacy. On one of the funnier tracks on the album, Kool Keith indulges in his defecation fetish in lines such as “Diarrhea on your two-door Benz compressor,” yet he no longer sounds like a surrealist rapper playing with language but instead like a 40-year-old guy making a poop joke.

Best Kept Secret sounds too much like a bunch of sub-par underground rappers languishing in compilations and anonymity.

It’s sad that this record is merely competent; Secret sounds like someone imitating Ultramagnetic in the style of rap circa 2007. It really isn’t a bad album, but there’s already enough mediocre music around. In the end, Ultramagnetic should have taken the advice of another rap group whose reign of fame has long since past: “Don’t call it a comeback.”