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Review: Tech N9ne's 'Something Else' Goes Pop Without Selling Out

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The Kansas City MC adds a broad LP to his sterling catalog

After 20 years in the game, Tech N9ne is having a moment. The fiery lyricist out of Kansas City, MI was once derided as a rap outsider obsessed with painting his face and believed to be a devil worshipper, but in recent years has been championed as an independent rap icon and embraced by popular artists who previously would have nothing to do with him. Now that’s Strange. But with acceptance comes challenges. Like how Tech can continue to trade upon his misfit status when he’s slowly transitioning out of being a rap misfit.

That’s the question the Strange Music co-founder most likely had to answer when he went in to work on Something Else, his 13th studio album, and first solo project since 2011’s All 6’s and 7’s (which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart in its first week of release). A concept album with the songs slotted in three acts—Fire, Water, and Earth—the LP is framed around the story of a meteorite striking downtown Kansas City. Very crafty.

Faced with impending doom from said meteorite, the first act, Fire, features songs like the judgment day-inspired “Straight Out The Gate,” where System of a Down’s Serj Tankian sings: “We are the children of your rivals/Holding guns while reading Bibles/Go ahead and seal your fate.” Deep stuff. Then there’s the brazenly unapologetic “With the BS,” about the physical dangers of pushing a person past their limit and “Fortune Force Field,” a poignantly sung-rapped tune about the riches Tech presumably deserves, but somehow can’t grasp. “Fragile,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, Kendall Morgan and Mayday! is a brutal ‘fuck you’ letter to music critics, which may dissuade writers from ever saying anything about these guys ever again, lest you hurt their feelings.

Water is the section of the LP where things begin to lighten up, albeit only briefly. “So Dope (They Wanna)” is all tongue-twisting Midwestern rap—essentially Tech’s calling card—about, well, fucking. It’s a brilliant display of lyrical mastery. But then he’s diving right back into the deep end on “Burn The World,” which addresses gun control (“Why did Adam [Lanza] shoot the school up?/Maybe cause the way he grew up... cause mama loved to pick the tool up”) and the stellar Cee-Lo, Big K.R.I.T. and Kutt Calhoun parenting ode, “That’s My Kid.”

With its somewhat bloated tracklist (debatable, in a day and age when we can cherry-pick what songs to listen to by just removing a track from a playlist; Tech also has a history of releasing long albums), things drag occasionally. Like on “Meant To Happen,” a Scoop Deville-produced cut which never gets off the ground, faltering at the hands of skittering drums and a top line melody that sounds like it isn’t really sure what it wants to do. And he slips on “See Me,” a generic Wiz Khalifa and B.o.B-assisted cut that might sound at home on one of those artists’ LPs, but comes off woefully out of place here.

That said, the final portion of the LP, Earth, which deals more with the idea of hope, is where things take off and show Tech’s artistic growth. “Believe” is the album’s standout track—an inspiring tune about overcoming racism, and probably a bit more pop-inflected than die-hard Tech N9ne fans have ever heard him before—featuring an incredible vocal performance from local Kansas City vocalist Kortney Leveringston, doing what sounds like the best Beyoncé impression of all time. And then there’s “Strange 2013,” a reworking of The Doors “Strange Days,” produced by Fredwreck and featuring all the members of the band, including Ray Manzarek, who passed away in May. A ballsy collaboration like that could have sounded forced, but here it doesn’t, with the Doors stepping more into Tech’s world, sonically, than he into theirs. It’s very cool.

Is Something Else a milestone in Tech N9ne’s career, the quintessential album he’s been waiting to make his whole career? Tough to say. The LP has a cornucopia of guests, but they all show up in force and only occasionally detract from the material. There aren’t any blatantly bad songs, but sure, you might skip a few. It happens. And do all the tracks fit neatly into the project’s conceptual arc? No, but even attempting something like that is a tall task, and the album as a straight listen certainly exhibits a noted change in musical direction as it plays, which is a commendable. Though he’s not exactly the outsider he once was, Tech N9ne fans—the die-hards and the johnny-come-latelys—should really enjoy this album. —Paul Cantor

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