Kno – Death Is Silent Review

While thoughtful, emotional hip hop is often labeled as backpack or even emo rap, it’s worthy to note that some of the best music that’s ever been made in any genre comes from strong emotions like heartbreak and depression. You can feel it in the music and it is brilliantly displayed in the lush soundscapes of Kno’s solo debut.

Being one of the best hip hop producers that you never heard of, you might need an introduction. Kno is the primary producer and co-founder of the Kentucky/Georgia based trio, the Cunninlynguists. While he rapped on much of their first two albums, he’s only been heard in the booth a few times since their 2003 sophomore album. But that’s changed now as he handles both production and mic duties for his solo debut.

The showcase for the album is, as you’d expect, the music. And that’s really what it is as I wouldn’t be doing the production justice by oversimplifying it and calling them hip hop beats, even though technically, that’s what they are. Yes, there are samples and the songs are arranged in the usual chorus-verse-chorus structure but he does so much with the basic framework of hip hop. You can never tell how he chopped up his obscure samples (aside from his frequent use of vocal samples) and his music is layered with so many intricacies that you’ll be catching things even after ten spins.

He continues his sonic evolution starting from the Cunninlynguists’ opus third album, A Piece of Strange, by filling the solemn, soulful instrumentation with cinematic strings, haunting synths and guitar plucks that are a perfect match for the ongoing theme of death throughout the album. One of the strongest examples of this is on the standout track, Rhythm of the Rain, where a single note guitar pluck is so strong that it sounds like it’s going to break the string, backed by another acoustic guitar strummed in a Spanish flurry.

As with much of his previous work in the past few years, he uses very appropriate vocal samples as choruses in many of the songs, which are pitched up but not exaggerated to the point that they become chipmunky.

My only minor gripe about this album is that Kno is not the most technically proficient rapper. His writing is not terrible and is serviceable for the type of music he’s trying to make but his delivery and cadence can sound awkward over his own music at certain points when he can’t seem to find the pocket. This is odd considering he fit nicely on his earlier, albeit more archaic and traditional, production on the first two Cunninlynguists albums. He also he seems to lack the mic presence and energy that he displayed there, though that may be intentional due to the more solemn tone of the music.

Fortunately, what saves this situation from becoming a trainwreck is that he enlists fellow Cunninlynguist members, Deacon and Natti, as well as frequent collaborators from the QN5 collective such as Substantial and Tonedeff on almost every track. Even the more unknown emcees that are featured on this album hold their own for the most part.

While I’m usually not the biggest fan of saturating albums with guest rappers, it really helps move this record to larger heights because as decent as Kno is on the mic, I don’t think he could hold down a AAA album rapping by himself. Plus, most of the rappers are people he collaborates with regularly and have good chemistry with and so I’d imagine they came in already having a good idea of the direction he wanted to go, which allows the album to feel consistent even with many different voices and personalities.

The sum of its parts come together almost symbiotically and it’s amazing that in the age of singles, how much of a difference having an overarching theme and vision can have on an album’s cohesiveness. There is not a single song you want to skip and every track has its purpose. Kno consistently makes beautiful music within the strict confines of hip hop and is one of the only producers that can make a hip hop album’s instrumentals sound like an instrumental album that was built from the ground up for that purpose.

Ultimately, listeners are going to be divided into two camps. If you like your hip hop hard edged and street, you probably won’t like this album. If you appreciate soulful, melodic hip hop and don’t mind the depressing subject matter, you’ll absolutely love Death is Silent. While it’s been an amazing year for hip hop and there’s still several big releases on the horizon, I’m already calling this one of the best of the year in any genre and it continues to elevate Kno’s status as the most underappreciated hip hop producer in the industry.

Death Is Silent was released on October 12th, 2010

Spread Your Wings feat. Deacon the Villain

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When I Was Young feat. Natti and Substantial

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