So Jurassic Five has reunited, Deltron 3030 just put out a new album, El-P and Killer Mike have made three of the best rap records of the last two years, Death Grips smolders controversially in the national consciousness, and Kanye has alienated everyone with a cacophonous assault on corporate white America. Is indie rap once again ascendant? Not that "indie rap" could or would mean what it did when Y2K was still a thing — rap, like rock and pop, comes in vastly more stances and flavors than "indie" or "mainstream" anymore — but, well, we all know about those 20-year cycles, right?
And so right on time, here is a new Latyrx album — which is already a phrase unique to this particular moment. Sixteen years ago, the Bay Area's Lateef the Truthspeaker and Lyrics Born partnered under a neologism of both their names for one commercially ineffective but quietly influential experiment called Latyrx. They had productions by DJ Shadow before everyone knew who DJ Shadow was, and Chief Xcel before anyone had heard of Blackalicious. And the two MCs were at least as remarkable — Lateef, with a tongue like a jackhammer, and Lyrics Born, who sang, scraped, groaned, and flitted his way through all 47 minutes of The Album. Together they found a liminal space between traditional boom-bap and mind-twisting experimentation, like on the album's eponymous first track, where Lateef and Lyrics Born rapped separately over the same spacey DJ Shadow beat, then laid the vocal tracks over each other, each spiraling off alone at once. But Latyrx put out The Album in 1997, released one EP the following year, and then went quiet.
Until now. With the release of The Second Album, Lateef and Lyrics give their sonic sorcery the 2013 update, hurling hot lyrical potatoes over a dubsteppy quiver ("It's Time"), spooning out syllables over Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs doing her best bird-call impression ("Watershed Moment"), and shouting, unhinged and unrepentant, over blazing neon synthesizers ("Gorgeous Spirits (Aye Let's Go!)"). If that all sounds rather diverse and unpredictable, those qualities define The Second Album. Its good parts are good enough to make you wonder about a resurgence in Bay Area independent rap, and with these gifted rappers using productions from tUnE-yArDs, Jel, Amp Live, and others, there are plenty of good parts. The lesser moments arrive when Lateef and Lyrics indulge that contagious Nor-Cal urge to preach about Big Problems (gun violence; rumor/meme culture; "peace, justice, equality") without acknowledging the knots that make them such Big Problems in the first place.
But the dimmer spots don't spoil the overriding sense of freshness and vigor in these 13 songs. The Second Album is a powerful reminder of the talents of both Lateef and Lyrics Born, both as rappers and decision-makers assembling a big project like this. (Perhaps because he mixes up his rhyming with singing, Lyrics Born is the more compelling presence of the two; one highlight is his confession of being addicted to buying shit on credit cards on "It's Time.") The sudden, pleasurable return of this long-dormant duo makes us wonder: Is that adversarial urgency that so enlivens the music of these rappers and their Quannum/Solesides crew becoming cool again? Why did Lateef and Lyrics take 16 years to follow up their acclaimed debut? Could indie rap come back? And — most importantly — when are they going to make The Third Album?