Dame Fortune is a fitting album title from an artist who crafted the most magnetic TV theme song of our time—and sees barely a dime for it. An edit of the psych-hip-hop producer RJD2’s “A Beautiful Mine” (off his 2006 collaborative album Magnificent City with rapper Aceyalone) is the dramatic thunderclap that begins every episode of modern television’s watershed prestige drama Mad Men. But when the show’s executives came knocking, our hero, Ramble Jon Krohn, agreed to sell the song’s publishing to the show. So it goes. Of course, the Mad Men theme isn’t the beginning of RJD2’s story—that’d be his 2002 critically acclaimed debut Deadringer on El-P’s Definitive Jux label—but it provides a compelling lens to filter his latest release through. Like “A Beautiful Mine,” Dame Fortune is an instrumental rollercoaster of emotion, blue-black, soulful strings and skittering beats collide in a confusing, ecstatic symphony.
More than 20 years into a career marked by dedication to instrumental hip-hop, Krohn is also defined by his disavowal of any one label, genre, or even tone. There’s a strange courage in his fiercely off-the-wall innovation, and an earnestness that is often stamped out by major label machinations. RJD2 remains both prolific and independent, which is part of what makes Dame Fortune so fascinating to listen to. Sometimes, it feels like being in a room where all the elements have become animated and begun to contribute to the noise, like the Beauty and the Beast feast concocted by sentient furniture. It’s a frenzy of movement fueled from all sides, stretching to include sad or even despairing energy into a joyous tumult. Dame Fortune opens with a song titled “Portal Inward” and closes with “Portal Outward,” which further seals the idea that what is contained between the two is a cohesive alternate world.
Krohn grew up in Columbus, Ohio but spent the last year working and living in Philadelphia, and that city’s underlying soul is a cornerstone here. On the album’s standout “The Sheboygan Left” buoyant gospel samples disintegrate into slower tempos, curling toward Caribbean-inflected relaxation before building back into a glitchy golden peak. The song is bookended with glorious highs, but that soft, slow middle is the key; melancholy pulses just beneath the funk. RJD2 songs always possessed this chameleon-like ability to shift midway through, crashing disparate styles and emotions together with ardent urgency. The album’s lead single, “Peace Of What” is similarly upbeat, weaving swathes of choir vocals and triumphant funk into a song about the futility of peace, the prevalence of fear and violence.
RJD2 is first and foremost a producer, and the record centers sampling as the primary means of communication. Even when other voices appear, these vocals manage to sound like just another element Krohn weaves into his vision of the song’s whole. “Saboteur,” featuring Phonte Coleman, twists through exaltation and despair, but it’s the music—the composition—that seems to wrestle with god. Just when you think that everything’s all right / I will find a way to break our hearts, Coleman sings. It’s a love song about failing your lover, yet the music builds on a glimmering bassline and whirlwind, romantic strings. These juxtapositions don’t feel stilted or forced, instead they depict life in the jagged, broken ways it unfolds around us. So often, these moments aren’t just broken, but also beautiful. So often our deep desire for peace is snuggled up next to our ferocious apathy. Sometimes, you’re the man behind the curtain, let’s say you’re the one who created one of the most prevalent songs in culture, and nobody knows your name. Don Draper would understand.
Dame Fortune is out today via RJ’s label Electrical Connections. Get it here.