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Music Review: Tech N9ne's 'Special Effects'

Tech N9ne
“Special Effects” (Strange Music)

Cultural, racial and musical barriers crumbled when the Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne performed for tens of thousands of hard rock fans at Rockfest on May 30.

Penn Valley Park was filled with more than 50,000 people, and most of them vociferously rapped along with the man who rightfully refers to himself as the Kansas City King. Despite shrill objections from rock purists, Tech N9ne demonstrated that he deserved to be the first hip-hop artist to appear at the large-scale festival.

That momentous performance was a milestone in the evolution of Kansas City’s music scene and in the career of the man born Aaron Dontez Yates here in 1971.

Named for his rapid-fire flow, Tech N9ne scuffled in area collectives including the 57th Street Rogue Dog Villians as he developed a reputation as one of hip-hop’s most unconventional rappers, differentiating himself from his peers with his dark themes, theatrical appearance and embrace of rock.

Since co-founding the locally based Strange Music record label in 1999, he's become one of the bestselling independently distributed rappers in the world and is the most prominent musical act from the Kansas City area since the emergence of the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny in the 1970s.

At an age when most rappers are winding down, Tech N9ne, 43, is making the most commercially successful and artistically audacious music of his career. “Special Effects,” his 15th studio album, placed fourth on Billboard magazine's sales charts when it was released in May. While the sprawling project isn’t perfect, “Special Effects” may be Tech N9ne’s masterpiece.

Rather than repeating a successful formula, Tech continues to take risks with a staggering range of styles. “Why not have all these links with all these different genres?” he muses on the album. "Why can’t I be the epicenter of all kinds of music?" The eclectic project includes radio-friendly hip-hop, heavy metal, reggaeton, electronic dance music and progressive rock, while the steady hand of producer Seven provides continuity and a top-shelf list of collaborators adds to the project’s prestige.

The highly anticipated “Speedom,” Tech's frenetic showdown with Eminem, doesn’t disappoint: The pair’s nimble rapping is dazzling. Party rapper 2 Chainz, street rappers Lil Wayne and T.I., Corey Taylor of the horror-core metal band Slipknot and the electronic music producer Excision contribute their distinctive talents, and  appearances by locally based musicians are just as impressive. Krizz Kaliko, Tech N9ne’s longtime sidekick, provides many of the vocal hooks and serves as an affable hype man for the star, while Mark Lowrey, best known for his exquisite piano work in jazz clubs, adds lyrical flourishes. And Gee Watts and Joey Cool acquit themselves well on the reflective “Life Sentences.”

Objectionable lyrical content on tracks like the misogynistic “Psycho Bitch III” and the morally dubious radio hit “Hood Go Crazy” are balanced by more consequential concerns. During “Aw Yeah (Intervention),” one of the riveting songs he performed at Rockfest, Tech N9ne equates recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, to strife in Benghazi, Libya, referencing classical composer Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” in a composition that serves as a meditation on God’s purpose.

Tech N9ne is, after all, part of the long tradition of American musicians who chronicle lascivious Saturday nights and repent with spiritual material appropriate for Sunday mornings. He frequently addresses the 2014 death of his mother; here, anguished songs including the soul-jazz selection “Worldy Angel” act as moving tributes to her passing.

Another of his primary concerns elicits less sympathy: His obsession with displeased critics and disgruntled fans. The art-rock "Dyin' Flyin'" is one of several tracks on which Tech reveals his artistic insecurities, expressing frustration with fans who suggest that he’s gone soft and others who resent his achievements. Tech N9ne should realize that detractors — whether the handful of hecklers at Rockfest or former admirers that begrudge his fame — are an inevitable byproduct of his extraordinary success.

KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at plasticsax.com.
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