The hype surrounding RJD2's debut release, Dead Ringer, is building quickly. Among hip-hop heads, the album already has a next-big-thing glow to it. But this review should really be for non-hip-hop circles: those of us who like hip-hop and who own a few key albums here and there, but who remain skeptical about buying any albums on a regular basis. If you fit that description, hear this: Dead Ringer should be your next purchase. It runs the gamut between pure hip-hop, experimental sound collage and pop-drenched big-beat rollers, and it should fit comfortably on your shelf between DJ Shadow's Endtroducing and the Anticon oeuvre.

While some tracks show off RJ's ability to craft slick, down-tempo instrumentals that could set the soundtrack for the glitziest wine bars 'round town, others stitch together scaled-back, minimal breaks that set the stage for some dexterous rapping, compliments of Copywrite, Motormouth and Blueprint. Good down-tempo beats and slick rhymes are enough to make any hip-hop album shine, but RJ takes it one step further by integrating his gargantuan beats with antique vocal samples (think Moby's Play, only cooler), thus intelligently elevating what might have been simply another great hip-hop album into the realm of pop.

If hip-hop is to have a bright future, more artists like RJD2 are gonna have to come along, artists who can balance an ear for pop hooks with a love of raw, underground beats, not to mention the attitude that goes with them.

The only thing the record has going against it is its length. Clocking in at an hour and seven minutes, the album is diluted only by the sheer number of tracks. Where DJ Shadow's efforts revolve around recurring themes, Dead Ringer functions almost like a greatest-hits collection: Every song is amazing, but toward the end of the record, you find yourself wanting just a little more cohesion. Nonetheless, Dead Ringer is sure to nab RJD2 some marquee work in the coming year. He's already signed on to produce tracks for hip-hoppers Souls of Mischief, MF Doom and Mos Def, but given his knack for pop hooks and overall songwriting abilities, it wouldn't be surprising if Madonna tried to get him on the phone: "Hey, RJ? This is Madonna. Can you make me cool again?" Yes, Madonna, he can, but you're gonna have to take a number.


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