What passes for introspective rap these days is, well, Drake—the Canadian phenom has been applauded for showing brief glimpses of his insecurities, even though those revelations come couched in lots of talk of being confident and invincible. Robots and Dinosaurs, from Grammy-nominated, D.C.-based MC/musician Kokayi, should recalibrate expectations of what constitutes an honest hip-hop album. The Grammy-nominated artist shows that vulnerability isn't just an occasional admission of heartbreak amid a bunch of player talk, or a quick mention of depression surrounded by lines about feeling like Superman. He carefully details his lowest moments and yet still makes an album that bangs.
Kokayi's previous album, 2008's Mass Instructions, was a guide to navigating everyday life for the happy and essentially well-adjusted. Robots and Dinosaurs is dark complement to that project, with Kokayi explaining how he makes his way through a world inhabited by hip-hop automatons, who are concerned with nothing more than selling albums, and brittle rap curmudgeons, who only care about preserving the old way of doing things, even if that comes at a creative cost. He manages to pluck the best from both camps by mixing incredible, futuristic production with the sort of truth-telling and soul-baring that was a lot more common in the hip-hop days of old.
The project, released on his label, QN5, dropped Oct. 1. Why a Friday rather than a Tuesday? "I found out I couldn't release the record digitally on September 28th," Kokayi told me recently. "I had to push it to October 1, or it would be ineligible for both this year's Grammys and next year's Grammys." Smart move.
Kokayi and Jamie Benson, of the WRGW radio show Funkadelic Freestyles recently hosted a listening party for Robots and Dinosaurs and gave a little background on each track on the album, which pulls inspiration from everything from Richard III and The Canterbury Tales to Dr. Seuss and the interstate highway system. A few highlights:
"The Onceler's Theme": Kokayi's son provides commentary throughout the album, and kicks things off by explaining the differences between robots and dinosaurs on this intro (named for the Dr. Seuss character).
"RoxTar": Kokayi says this was written and recorded before Rihanna's "Rock Star," or Taio Cruz's "Rockstar," so he just changed the spelling on this ode to rock gods, local and national. D.C. legend Stanely Cooper is on guitar, and he goes toe-to-toe with a springy synth that mimics a guitar line.
"Wynter of My Discontent": The track, which takes its title from Richard III, is a snapshot of Kokayi’s growth as father, husband, and human, struggling with depression, and eventually coming to accept himself.
"Nicotine": A look at unrequited love in 3 stages, Kokayi revives the lost art of the non-cheesy hip-hop love song by looking at heartbreaks he experiences at ages 9, 16, and 23. Best part: Kokayi (accomplished singer as well as an MC), handles the hook himself here.
"Autumn Rules": The only track on Robots and Dinosaurs not produced by Kokayi, the mellow, almost folk-y beat comes from in-demand producer Oddisee. “I wanted an Oddissee track that people would hear and say, 'That’s Oddissee?'" Kokayi says. Mission accomplished. Also, Kokayi does an amazing flip of the classic KRS-One refrain, "Suicide, it's a suicide," taking it from battle cry to cry for help.
"Ninety 5 (feat. Substantial and Tonedeff)": What's the thing that connects Kokayi with the rhymesayers featured on this track? I-95. The MCs are based in D.C. (Kokayi), Baltimore (Substantial), and New York(Tonedeff), and travel that route when they need to collaborate, so they decided to write a rhyme using that always-crowded interstate as a metaphor for their bond.
"Obdare": Kokayi calls this his "ode to the elder statesmen" of hip-hop, and he tackles the ageism that is rampant in rap culture. It's a well-constructed, thoughtful track, but Robots and Dinosaurs, taken as a whole, is truly Kokayi's best argument against discarding MCs after they turn 30.