Three days after The Alchemist’s Russian Roulette hit the stores, a certain hip-hop reporter walked into a ‘Russian Vodka Bar’ in Toronto and ordered himself a drink; Keeping with the theme at hand, he ordered a White Russian. As he stood at the bar, with flags of different Russian heroes like Stalin and Marx hanging overhead, the reporter noticed a trumpet player in full Soviet uniform giving him the stink eye from across the room. After a few sips from his chilled poison, the reporter observed with a watchful eye as the musician slithered across the red carpet floor to join him at the bar. “You want apple?” said the man, in a thick Moscow accent. The reporter shook his head, befuddled. And that’s when the trumpet player reached under his epaulets to pull out a chrome switchblade that he proceeded to stab the reporter with, repeatedly.
Ahem- I’m afraid to say that if you believed that little yarn then you are no better than the lummoxes The Alchemist pointedly pokes fun at with Russian Roulette. Technically-speaking, the project is Jewish-born Maman’s answer to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. The producer is responsible for arranging and curating a palette of sounds, both instrumental and lyrical, that reflect a certain overriding mood; While The Chronic served as a sonic representation of Dre’s upbringing in 80’s Compton, California, Russian Roulette is a collage of Russian cultural artifacts, both as presented by the Soviets themselves, as well as by the Yankees. By using his signature collage method, The Alchemist manages to elicit the perfect amount of irony when transposing dialogue from propaganda films like Red Dawn and Rocky IV with actual Russian orchestral numbers — Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”. Which brings us to thematics. You could argue for days what this experimental hip-hop project is really ‘about’; The closest you’ll come to an ‘answer’ is that Russian Roulette is an album celebrating the ‘outcast’.
During the 80’s the Yanks continually represented the Reds in their media as barbaric soulless brutes hellbent on destroying the world for no apparent reason at all. Russian Roulette aspires to correct that interpretation; It implicitly ridicules the mainstream American take on Russia, while simultaneously showcasing the rich cultural offerings of the Eastern Bloc. That unlucky reporter who got gutted probably worded it best, when he wrote in his journal, the night of his slaying: “When a rapper comes in for a The Alchemist record, it's like they just hit the bong and wrote their last bar in Alan Maman’s bachelor pad. They're ready to go in, that is, while The Alchemist vibes to his father's crate of records — Russian jazz improvisation with a laptop and a sampler.”
In terms of specific records, there are a couple standouts, despite The Alchemist’s wish that the album be listened to from start to finish. “Decisions Over Veal Orloff”, featuring Action Bronson, is a jazzy horn number that compliments Bronson’s uncanny rhymes of food, gunplay, and exotic pussy rather nicely. “The Turning Point” is another gem, from its stripped-down electric guitar sample to Roc Marciano’s checklist-esque rapping style. When Roc rounds off expressions like, “Bite the pear when it’s ripe, the old banana in the tailpipe,” with enough charisma to kill a cat, it reminds listeners that perhaps they’re fortunate not to know what he’s talking about. “Flight Confirmation”, the album’s official first single, featuring Danny Brown and ScHoolboy Q, is equally bananas — an eerily repetitive sample of some old Russian song, with horns and deep bass. ScHoolboy’s intro, “Shimmy shimmy ya, shimmy yeah, shimmy you, you, you, Q, Q,” is proof enough that ‘the real Puff Daddy’ can run with pretty much any concept.
Then there are the instrumental numbers, like “Adrian’s Words – Champion Song”, a cut-up of the Stallion’s wife, Adrian, from Rocky IV talking about fear, blended with a triumphant guitar solo that makes your reviewer suspect that The Alchemist must be an Eric Clapton or Cream enthusiast. But with that said, Mr. MFN eXquire’s verse on track 29, “The Kosmos Pt. 7 – The Explanation”, is probably the trophy-winner, just because of today’s generation’s fascination with Ayahuasca drug trips, and creative song structures that mimic inter-galactic communications with multiple dimensions; You get the point.
All in all, The Alchemist’s Russian Roulette is a hit. Maybe not commercially. But who gives a fuck? The LP offers forth an intricate, layered, meaningful array of both American propaganda targeting Russia, as well as ‘real’ Russian popular culture. And although it invites analysis — for days — it also suggests that meaning is never fixed or uni-directional. Or at least that’s what your hip-hop reporter in the ‘Russian Vodka Bar’ seemed to think, for lack of a better understanding of the material. And no, the dude didn’t die, or get stabbed, or get attacked by some rogue trumpeter. The man merely walked into a ‘Russian-themed bar’, deduced that there were no Russians there, and that there never would be, paid his bill, and walked out. Capisce?