The Alchemist’s Russian Roulette and Parallel Thought’s Art of Sound look nearly identical on paper: both are albums from established hip-hop producers that feature a sound notably divergent from radio hip-hop’s prevailing trends. Both define themselves by dint of outlandish artistic conceits, and both rely on guest MCs to add flavor to their auteurs’ playful dabbling.
Art of Sound failed in its attempt to graft dolorous self-seriousness onto the normally exuberant form of hip-hop, but Russian Roulette succeeds—maybe not as a hip-hop album, but as a lovingly curated experiment from one of the genre’s better fabulists.
A producer associated with Eminem’s Shady Records stable, Alchemist has forged an impressive career churning out hits for the aforementioned Mr. Mathers, as well as such artists as Odd Future’s Domo Genesis and Curren$y. When not working as Eminem’s DJ, he has a tendency to drop instrumental albums like it was going out of style, racking up eight of the aforementioned since the turn of the millennium, in addition to five mixtapes and three studio releases.
Russian Roulette is neither mixtape nor instrumental. It instead splits the difference between those two forms by playfully expounding on a single concept, then bringing in guest MCs to improvise atop the results.
Each of Russian Roulette’s 30 tracks constructs itself around a sample from a Russian song. Alchemist invites everything from Slavic folk to Soviet avant-pop to take part in Roulette’s auditory carnival. He mines this source material for a wealth of skewed funk experiments and chirping vocal samples, which become onomatopoeia in his parsed translation. One track (“Ivan’s Workout Plan”) offers some solid advice about calisthenics atop what sounds like the efforts of a Moscow-based Marvin Gaye cover band.
That this stylish potpourri coheres into anything listenable serves as a testament to Alchemist’s production talent. Each of his jazzy dioramas establishes its theme and offers a couple variations thereof, often handing off the mic to such highly appropriate collaborators as Fashawn, Action Bronson and Schoolboy Q, before blending seamlessly into the next track.
Alchemist has the good sense to cut each of these experiments short before they overstay their welcome. Not a single track on Roulette pushes past the three-minute mark, leaving the impression (true or otherwise) that he’s holding back the fullness of his riches.
It’s the fun that Alchemist appears to be having with the whole thing that separates Roulette from such ostensible fellows as Art of Sound. The project itself wouldn’t have even occurred to, much less been completed by, anyone who wasn’t an incurable audiophile, and Alchemist’s affection for his obscurities provides a subtext for Roulette’s tracks.
This isn’t a hip-hop album, per se, (according to Alchemist it isn’t even an album), and as such will have a hard time finding an audience outside of the cabal of socially anemic vinyl fetishists for whom obscurity serves both as journey and destination.
Russian Roulette—with its two-minute singles and song cycle about the Russian space program—owes its existence to Alchemist’s ability to break the bank with his other endeavors. The album is a labor of love, rather than a commercial enterprise, and though its champions will be few, they will insist (not unjustly) that it’s one of the genre’s most exemplary anomalies.