More and more it seems like rappers and emcees are changing their style and releasing albums filled with singing instead of rapping. While Lauryn Hill was one of the first to do this (and do it right), many others followed in her footsteps. Q-Tip, John Forte, Cee-Lo of Goodie Mob all began singing instead of rhyming. California’s own Declaime is doing it too but in a different way.
While Declaime hasn’t given up on rapping, he has released an album of just him singing and doing spoken word over beats produced by Madlib. A Lil’ Light is that album released under the name Dudley Perkins (his real name) on the Stones Throw label which has always put out quality material: Wildchild, Lootpack, Quasimoto, and The Funky 16 Corners compilation are all worth checking out. Perkins’ A Lil’ Light is something that we weren’t expecting, even though he sang on the single "Flowers", I don’t think people were prepared for an entire album.
While Perkins does have an extremely unique sounding voice, he’s not a true singer. Many say that there are two kinds of singers in the world. First, there are the ones who have stellar voices but usually sing other people’s songs and those songs have a more commercial style or appeal. Secondly, there are those singers who do not have an amazing voice but they do have something important to say. Dudley Perkins fits in to the second category. Fueled by some incredible production by Madlib, Perkins has found a way to tackle issues ranging from God, jail, his mother, money, drugs, women, space, and even nuclear war.
While many of the songs do not have a typical or standard song structure, most of them work well. Basically, there’s a very well produced Madlib beat and Perkins sings his lines over and over again like a mantra. In some ways, he style is reminiscent of Mark E. Smith of The Fall. Vocally, his off-key and high-pitch singing sounds like Damon Albarn’s work with Gorillaz. Yesterday’s New Quintet is even on 2 tracks but that is not a big surprise since YNQ is just another dimension (or five) of Madlib’s persona. Everything Declaime (or Dudley Perkins) has created has been interesting and always tapped into certain emotions. ‘A Lil Light’ is no different.
Many of the songs on the album work because of the emotion and the honesty that is heard and felt from Perkins. "Falling", one of the best songs on the album, is mainly a spoken-word piece over an incredible Madlib beat. The mid-tempo rhythm just glides along as a complicated and melancholy orchestral motif plays. The many different melodies change and integrate with each other. It is the best Madlib beat I have ever heard.
Perkins has many deep lines like "I’ve seen what a lack of knowledge can do to a civilization" and "Only you can lift you up." He even sums up the project with a couple of lines too: "…I hang on the edge of this universe / Sing off key / Talking too loud / Embracing myself to cushion the fall / I shall tumble into deep space’" The song is simply incredible, as it not only shows Perkins’ knowledge but a vulnerability that does not come through in much straightforward hip-hop.
"Solitude" is the following track and has a very cool rim-shot driven beat. Perkins shows his vulnerability again in a poignant way: "Do you know the way to my home? / See, I’m lost and I’m all alone." It is a side to Declaime that we have never seen before.
Another emotional track is the opening "Momma" as Perkins sings a moving tribute to his mother as he repeats, "It was you who gave me life, Momma!" Another tribute song is delivered later in the album with "Lil Black Boy". This time, Perkins sings to his son. The vintage sample of the plucking strings and the thick handclap beat works perfectly. Perkins repeats his lines again for the hook: ‘Little black boy / you give me joy!’ In his verses, he half-sings and half-talks his touching and enlightening advice to his son.
Another emotional sounding track is the completely a cappella hidden track after the last song "Gotta Go". While the lyrics are not overtly emotional, the overall sound and feeling is. The hidden track is reminiscent of the 50’s doo-wop where men stood on the corner and sang. Of course, Perkins handles all the vocals.
"Yo Soul" has a pounding beat with another vintage sounding light guitar sample and strong handclap rhythms. Perkins chants and sings the repeated hook: "…You can feel it in your body / You can feel it in your soul…" The hook becomes like a mantra and has a strong hypnotic quality.
Declaime was always known for some great songs about smoking weed and "Flowers" is no different. While some of it sounds silly in the Ol Dirty Bastard singing way, there is a serious undertone to it too. The jazzy piano and tight snares make this song a very up-beat and happy song to get high to. "Lord’s Prayer" is almost like a conversation or a tribute to God.
Out of all the cool sounding tracks, "Just Think" truly slams with an intense funky, ghetto quality. Madlib’s guitar sample is deep in the background and other string instruments add to the melody. Perkins’ voice is very high and off-key for the verses but for the hook, he uses a deep ghetto voice and street English: "Keep your hand clap, come on!" The handclap rhythm along with the guitars and the other samples at first sound like a cacophony but it all comes together to make a very strong track.
Another entertaining track is "Washedbrainsyndrome" where Perkins tells us a story by singing. The narrator of the song is in jail and tells us about how he was brainwashed by a woman and was led to murder. Even though there is a humorous approach to the song and subject matter, the severity of the song is never lost. Finally, ‘The Light’ is not catchy at all, but is cool and inspirational in many ways. "Find your light!", Perkins sings in a falsetto voice.
While many hip-hop albums have skits and interludes, A Lil’ Light has these tiny cacophonic tracks. "Worship" is just a myriad of sounds and instruments playing at the same time as Perkins croons in a high-pitched and off-key manner. It is somewhat useless. The album closer, "Gotta Go" (inspired by Sun Ra), is a protest song of sorts. Perkins shouts like a man driven insane: "’Nuclear war! / It’s a motherfucker! / Don’t you know? / If they push that button, your ass gotta go!’" It turns into chaos very quickly. Still, it’s short, sweet, and actually entertaining.
The opening intro track "Do you Really Know Me?" is odd with Perkins coughing into the microphone. "Forevaendless" is another strange, short but entertaining track. Perkins finds comfort in the fact that the universe is ‘endless’. Disco bizarrely creeps into this interlude, too. While many of the actual songs do have a sloppy or chaotic sound and feel to them, the interludes push the boundaries even further.
While the album is actually very well done, some aspects can get a little annoying. Perkins does not have a voice with range so, when he sings at a high-pitch, it is very off-key. Most of the time it works, but sometimes, it does not. "Muzak" is a perfect example. The loud rumble of Madlib’s beat pounds into the listener’s ears. Perkins uses a voice box as he sings out of tune: "Music! God bless this music!" While the beat and the sentiments are wonderful, the sheer noise is a little like nails scratching on a blackboard. The song should have been made into one of those interludes…
Dudley Perkins (aka Declaime) has always been a creative force in hip-hop. A Lil’ Light walks the tightrope between serious singing and singing for fun. While many people may be turned off by his high-pitched, off-key singing style in places and the sloppiness of the songs, the emotion and the overall vibe is what makes this project special.
Declaime’s other side-project Madmen On Arrival EP also had that chaotic feel but was not as well-executed or as special as A Lil’ Light. Ol Dirty Bastard is not well-accomplished singer but he is entertaining and when Dudley Perkins sings, he can be humorous at times, too, but he also can enlighten, entertain, uplift, and heal.
Another major positive aspect is the sense of pure experimentation of the project. Both Perkins and Madlib display quite a bit of courage releasing something like this. There is a strong improvisational feel to many of the songs and it is evident that Madlib and Perkins are always seeing eye to eye.
For those who just discovered Declaime, his hip-hop album Andsoitisaid is much more accessible. His Dudley Perkins persona is not only for fans, but also for people with a more jazzy, improvisational, or experimental approach to music.