ONE WOULD THINK that after 25 years or so on the map, music critics would quit treating rap like it was some errant ghetto stepchild. The dark delinquent gets rewarded amply when its innovations flow in the approved direction, and gets big wrist slaps when it doesn't. A coupla years ago nobody was payin' no attention to former Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith when he was expressing his pornographic side with Sex Style. But then everybody and their momma's momma was feelin' Keith's alter ego, Dr. Octagon, who was probably never supposed to be a full-fledged persona in the first place. Critically speaking, Dr. Octagon overshadowed the decade of hard work Keith had put into both his solo and group incarnations -- time which, in hiphop years as in canine years, can translate into a few lifetimes. Dr. Octagon attracted a new international audience the likes of which hadn't been seen since De La Soul's daisy days. (A substantial achievement, but continue in that direction and you too, my brother, can turn into P.M. Dawn.) Obviously tired of the high regard, Keith paid the world back by his cold-blooded killing of Octagon last year. Actually, Keith didn't kill Octagon -- another alter persona, this one called Dr. Doom, did. Keith stood by snickering while the Octagon went the way of the still dearly departed daisy age. Meanwhile, Doom premiered in hyper ghetto style, with an album cover straight out of the Master P/No Limit Production school of gold 'n' platinum-plated, cubic zirconium-studded computer graphics.

Now with Black Elvis/Lost in Space, Keith is jumping back to the future almost literally. Only a deranged ghetto mind (and I mean this in the kindest way possible) would think to lump Elvis and the space age in the same concept. Myself, I'm thinking, "Iffen you gots to go to the space place and you need a dead icon to get you there, why not Sun Ra?" The answer seems to lie in Keith's appropriation of space as artifice, as opposed to space as organism. Sun Ra signifies space transcendentally, a return to form outside of depth and time. Meanwhile, back on this planet, Kool Keith/Black Elvis is still down with cars and curls, rockets and robots, and gettin' paid. Keith is just too here to go there.

He boasts of being a "Supergalactic Lover" ("comin' from the projects on the hill/in my monkey green ragtop Seville") on one track, driving a Pontiac GTO on another ("Keith Turbo"). The track "Lost in Space" evokes the old '60s TV show rather than the cyberplace of the current crop of Keanu Reeves Matrix biters. And in a nod to the Mothership, the late Roger Troutman does his signature guitar vocoder thing around a Master P-flavored bounce, appropriately titled "Master of the Game." The music is certainly full of space flavor, but is darker; curling around the lyrics like a dense fog, almost brooding save for the relief of Keith's offhand vocal manner. The lion's share of programming/production chores are credited to "Live 7" and "Nightcrawler," and their support keeps the CD afloat when Keith's inspiration lags. Both Dr. Octagon and Dr. Doom's CDs were musically substantial enough to be released in stripped-down instrumental versions, and here's hoping that Black Elvis/Lost in Space will receive the same treatment.

The looming question diehard fans will be most interested in is whether this newest personality of Kool Keith will be as strong as its predecessors. It turns out that his Black Elvis isn't another alter ego of Keith's, like Doom or Octagon, which given Keith's MC prowess and wit, is a minor disappointment. The master rapper has neither sampled nor retooled any Elvis on this effort. Donning a black plastic pompadour wig, Keith resembles Clark Kent/Superman as much as he does Elvis Presley. His is an Elvis strictly in bloated, overconsumed, "rock star walkin' down Broadway" terms, as opposed to the blues-biting, fried banana sandwich-eating, gilded neo-ninja legend, who met his end alone on a palatial Southern toilet seat. Imagine the giddy brouhaha if Keith managed to focus on the multiple layers of meaning that would result if he explored the full ramifications of a rapper transmogrified into that other King of Rock.

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