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RP Boo - I’ll Tell You What! Music Album Reviews

On his first album of all new material, the Chicago footwork pioneer pushes at the outline of the genre, playing with convention and keeping listeners thrillingly off balance.

RP Boo has got death on his mind. In his introduction to I’ll Tell You What!—astoundingly, the first album of all new material from the legendary footwork producer—Boo says he wants to “die empty,” purging his musical mind in order to have left no idea unexplored when the Grim Reaper comes calling. That sense of urgency drives I’ll Tell You What!, an album that pushes at the edge of what footwork can be—a footwork record that clings to the genre by mysterious means, questioning where the limits lie.

Footwork has long delighted in fluidity, stamping its mark on anything from rock backbeats to sweet soul samples. Boo himself helped create that viscous template: His 1997 track “Baby Come On” is credited as one of the genre’s founding songs. Boo’s previous album, 2015’s Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints, made good use of this, riding roughshod over samples of everyone from Kenny Loggins to “The Munchkins Parade,” from The Wizard of Oz. But whereas that record still bore the hallmarks of classic footwork—drum-machine kicks, metallic snares, and guttural bass to keep the dancers moving—I’ll Tell You What! strips back Boo’s sound dramatically, often leaving just the genre’s ghostly trails as a guide.

At times I’ll Tell You What! feels like a brother to Wiley’s famed “Devil” mixes, when the London producer took the beats out from underneath his early productions to leave a skeletal corruption of grime. I’ll Tell You What! isn’t quite so radical in its reduction—only a few tracks dispense with the kick drum altogether—but many of the songs hand over main rhythmic duty to the bass, whose triple-time rumbling is often the only indication that we are in footwork’s orbit.

“Earth’s Battle Dance” has a lengthy middle section where the drum machines drop out entirely, leaving just a languorous funk break, over which clipped vocal samples and an insistent bass throb make a subliminal suggestion of footwork. Elsewhere, on tracks like “U-Don’t No” and “Cloudy Back Yard,” the style’s familiar percussive palette shows up almost reluctantly, dropping in for a few bars of lazy-yet-precise drum hits with the deadly lurch of the “drunken fist” fighting style.

The radical change in mood exhibited on “Earth’s Battle Dance” is another distinctive feature of I’ll Tell You What!’s sonic sorcery. Songs will frequently slam into dramatic left turns that unsettle and excite, turning the fabric of the track upside down and dissolving the line between fast and slow. “Flight 1235 (ft. Phil & Crossfire)” sounds like a fairly standard footwork outing for its first 90 seconds, all vocal fire and drum-machine strut, only to ratchet down the gears like a sports car on a country road with the introduction of a sunshine-mellow chorus.

Similarly, “U Belong 2 Me” sounds at first like a throwback to the ghetto-house style from which footwork was born, thanks to a bouncing 4/4 rhythm and pitched-up vocal samples. But halfway through, the insistent bass drum drops out and a funereal melody comes in, while Boo welds the song’s two vocal samples together so that the innocuous “Let go of this” and “You belong to me” combine to produce the chilling refrain of “Let go of me.” “Wicked’Bu” is, if anything, an even odder combination of moods, brilliantly combining the dramatic synth drones of Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack with a sample that stinks of 1960s spy flick.

I’ll Tell You What! is a masterful album of precision and imagination, one where footwork resounds with the potential of a rewritten rule book. It is also astoundingly alive, its energy and originality a reminder that visionary ideas and emptied minds can outlast feeble human mortality.

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