After roughly two decades with now-disbanded Run-DMC, Darryl McDaniels (DMC) has finally gone solo, even if he is not quite ready to go it alone.
The rapper has enlisted a cavalcade of guests on his debut solo offering, Checks Thugs and Rock N Roll (Rome N Empire Records) — some logical choices (such as Run-DMC mates Reverend Run and the late Jam Master Jay, fellow rapper Doug E. Fresh and Kid Rock) and some downright surprising collaborations (Sarah McLachlan, Cars guitarist Elliot Easton). The extensive list of cameos figures to pique listeners’ curiosity, but ultimately it works against DMC, as it draws too much attention away from him and the core of his material.
Indeed, DMC has invited so many people to the party that it’s hard to tell what the occasion is. The disc is billed as being inspired by two recent jolting occurrences in the 41-year-old rapper’s life: the murder of Jam Master Jay and DMC’s discovery that he was an adopted child. Along those lines, DMC seems to be taking stock — and taking on the world around him — with a searing social commentary on leadoff track “Watchtower,” which is essentially an update of “All Along The Watchtower” (much closer to Jimi Hendrix‘s arrangement than Bob Dylan‘s original) with new lyrics.
Its verses about pedophile priests, hip-hop violence and crumbling inner-city schools are a far cry from the topics Run-DMC would famously tackle, such as their love for their shoelace-less Adidas. But DMC follows it up with the bland, disposable “Freaky Chick,” a not-so-veiled shot at today’s divas that the media fawn over, which sounds more like a Sir Mix-A-Lot-type novelty.
“Just Like Me,” on the other hand, is a succinct, deeply personal song about DMC coming to grips with his adoption, but even at this triumphant moment, the ethereal vocals by McLachlan steal the show on the song’s refrain (the chorus to Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”). DMC’s vocal range sounds even more limited next to McLachlan, though he is eminently believable when he declares, “I just wanna know my history.” Deeper into the disc, he surrenders the spotlight altogether on consecutive tracks: lead vocalists Ms. Jade and Sonny Black dominate “Cold,” and it’s hard to detect if DMC’s voice is on the track at all, while “What’s Wrong” is carried by impassioned performances from Napoleon and Ciara.
It’s almost as if DMC’s creativity and/or singing is so limited that he had no choice but to step aside and let other singers take over. A cynic might suggest that Checks Thugs and Rock N Roll is a carefully timed tie-in with DMC’s new VH1 reality show. Still, there is certainly a potential hit or two here on an overall incongruous and puzzling album. With so much emphasis on the guests, DMC ends up obscured and comes off as reluctant to break away from the group dynamic he found such enormous success with in Run-DMC. (Fittingly, there are even occasional references to that group’s classic songs and album titles that pop up in the lyrics).
At a time of great self-discovery for him in his personal life, the identity of DMC the solo artist remains shrouded.
— By George Henn