Seattle MC Tulsi's new full-length, Cold Smoke, is his third strong album to date, following 2006's Fresh Points on Life and 2007's Waterflow. There's nothing spectacular about his rhymes or delivery, but Tulsi's consistently clever and thoughtful lyrics, like a Northwest Slug, emanate an amiable, regular-guy intimacy that instantly draws you into his underdog's worldview.
The 14 tracks on Cold Smoke (www .tulsimusic.com) boast excellent production values and deft use of samples. Tulsi's producers (Confidence, Blake 9, and Mallard) strip the familiar realm of funk, soul, and jazz records that countless hiphop studio wizards have sifted, but this tried-and-true approach still has legs—very muscular, springy legs. In particular, the way Confidence fillets Eddie Kendricks's orchestral-funk classic "Keep On Truckin'" for "Fast Lane" is genius. On the beautiful, vibes-enhanced "The Originator," Tulsi raps, "We don't need no self-destruction/We just need some self-reflection," which sums up his solid-dude steez. Cold Smoke is actually that heat.
Skream's debut 2006 full-length, Skream!, stands as one of dubstep's foundational works, a classic of the genre's peak era of ominous, slow-boiling choons geared to put the fear of Jah in you. Featuring the ubiquitous club monster "Midnight Request Line," the album reflects Skream's immersion in old-school Jamaican dub and his propensity for creating atmospheres of radiant menace. Both as a DJ and a producer, the Croydon, England-based Skream (aka Oliver Jones) has ranked among dubstep's most reliable sources of quality selections and productions for the dark, hard stuff—and he's still only 24.
However, Skream's long-awaited follow-up, Outside the Box (Tempa; www.tempa .co.uk), is a very mixed bag. Maybe this shouldn't surprise in the wake of remixes he's done for Dave Gahan, Chromeo, and Deadmau5, but Outside the Box reveals a troubling slide into maudlin melodies and sugary textures. For instance, "Where You Should Be" is a saccharine dubstep ballad with Sam Frank on fragile, heavily FX'd vocals. It goes for that glazed, freezed aura that 10cc captured on "I'm Not in Love," but lacks the sublime intimacy of that '70s pop gem and becomes a cloying, romantic hand-wringer. Even worse is "How Real," irksomely peppy, ultra-sweet UK garage with quirkily Auto-Tuned vox by Freckles.
Much of Outside the Box strives for Hollywood grandiosity ("Listenin' to the Records on My Wall," "A Song for Lenny," "Finally" with La Roux). The disc rebounds on "Fields of Emotion," which returns to Skream's stark, steely stared, mid-'00s output; the glowering, WordSound-style dub noir of "Metamorphosis"; and "I Love the Way," a somber yet funky torch song. "Wibbler" sounds like a taunt to loyal followers who thought Skream couldn't come properly 'ard anymore. It's practically a parody of the doom-mongering in which some dubstep producers revel.
One can't fault Skream for wanting to change, but some hardcore fans are surely going to feel alienated by Outside the Box.
Tulsi performs Sat Aug 28, Crocodile, 8 pm, $8, 21+. With the Let Go, Suntonio Bandanaz, Specs One, DJ Modul8r, DJ Able.