When Wile-E-Coyote inadvertently (and inevitably) runs off cliffs in his admirable but continually doomed pursuit of Roadrunner he still always manages to cover a few yards after the ground has run out. Ugly Duckling would be like Wile-E-Coyote but for the fact that they actually have the ability to keep going. And going. It’s not so much that they haven’t realised the ground has run out – more that they don’t care – the band’s self-awareness of their status as old-school hip-hop geeks is a theme they’ve never shied away from. And more power to them if they continue to produce retro-hop of this quality, because the simple fact of the matter is that every couple of years UD quietly put out a well-produced, humourous LP of party cuts.
First track I Won’t Let It Die is based around a filtered wah-wah loop previously used by NYC filth-mongers The High & Mighty on their track Dirty Decibels but Einstein has upped the bpms, added a dash of brass (obviously) and replaced leaden percussion with a heavily syncopated funk break. Andy C and Dizzy then spend 4 odd minutes exploring how, despite being told, “Wake up! That’s yesterday”, that they can’t ”Let it die.” Although apparently a rhyme about resilience and self-belief in general, it’s tempting to see it as referring to their ceaseless compulsion to pursue the sound of 1990. Unusually there’s a bit of an edge to this one as if they’ve grown beyond the cartoon-personae of previous releases. The Takedown initially comes over as typical UD fare – at least the brass hook would suggest this – but Einstein plumps for ‘87 as his inspirational year of choice for large chunks of a track which appears to be lyrically about stress management. Next up is the big-band-swing sampling title track – a pretty self-explanatory look at confidence and it’s at this point I’m starting to think UD’s relentless touring schedule has had devastating psychological consequences. As if to bear this out they’re on a downer again with Falling Again and the whole LP begins to seem like it’s going to lyrically alternate between being an Ugly Duckling self-help manual and a confessional.
Things lighten up with the DJ Einstein scratch-trumental Einstein Do It, a turntablist tour-de-force which never descends into deck-wanking or forgets that hip-hop started off by being about the dancefloor. The Lonely Ones uses sweeping spaghetti-western orchestral samples and (like many of the tracks on this) a pretty-accomplished sung (rather than rapped) pop-hook. Skit Pay Or Quit lightens the tone, and Right Now sees Andy C and Dizzy toy with indecisiveness while Einstein toys with your ears, digging deep in the vintage funk. Finally Oh Yeah is back on the self-help tip.
A lot less wide-ranging in terms of lyrical themes than previous releases, Audacity is not perhaps quite as immediately accessible musically as some of the band’s back catalogue either. Yet in this respect it avoids qualities that the less charitable might refer to as ‘saccharine’ – and in any case I suspect that it’s a ‘grower’. Despite some pigeonholing and some even more criminal overlooking, UD are a band who always change it up in some way and even if Andy and Dizzy are slightly less happy bunnies than they have been – their humour remains intact and whatever’s been going on in Einstein’s head since Bang For The Buck has brought new subtleties to his always superb production. It might not be perfect but Audacity is more sophisticated, more mature and more serious than previous work and if you were a lazy music journo you might well end a review of it describing this band’s latest LP as ‘audacious.’
Out now on Fat Beats
Listen to Ugly Duckling – Audacity