I don't know Rjyan Kidwell personally. I interviewed the 21-year-old Baltimore musician who calls himself Cex once for a thesis paper I never finished writing, and I've talked to him at a few of his shows. We know a bunch of the same people, and we've both freelanced for the Baltimore City Paper. We're not friends or anything, but I still feel like I need to offer full disclosure here.
When you listen to Jay-Z or Scarface, you feel like you understand them, like you can put yourself in their shoes. Rappers like these use sardonic humor and sharp detail to bring their world to vivid life. But most people who buy these records have never been wakened up by police at our door, never smuggled kilos of cocaine up from Florida, never had to mourn our dead homies. Most of us are relatively well-off young white people from suburban or rural backgrounds, and this music is pure voyeurism for us. We don't participate in any kind of conversation with the artists.
When a rapper comes along who actually comes from the same background as us, things change. Cex is from Baltimore, my hometown. We're roughly the same age (he's a couple of years younger). In different ways, we're both products of the Baltimore indie-spazz scene that also birthed bands like Charm City Suicides and Oxes. We share some of the same formative experiences (the Dismemberment Plan show at the American Legion Hall in Hamilton in 1996, for instance). And so when Cex made the transition from instrumental IDM producer to rapper, it was exciting for me personally, for personal reasons.
After years of shout-outs to Bed-Stuy and Compton, places where I've never been, the shock of recognition and relief was palpable when someone, anyone, even a lanky, skinny white kid with a penchant for stripping onstage, would rap about Frisco Burrito or riding bikes in Roland Park. So fair warning: maybe I'm inclined to give Cex a free pass for whatever dumb idea he comes up with next. Maybe that's why I like him. Or maybe I like him because he's really fucking good.
Kidwell was in high school when he began work on Role Model, his debut album. His first two albums were gentle, warm, pastoral IDM lightly sprinkled with hip-hop beats and acoustic guitars. His live show, however, was another story. Bored with aloof onstage knob-twiddlers, he started rapping. More specifically, he started writing madcap booty jams with titles like "Balls Out," running out in the audience, stripping down, and doing everything short of biting off chicken heads to keep the audience's attention. Somehow this splatter of ideas led Kidwell to reinvent himself as an actual, legitimate underground rapper.
Tall, Dark and Handcuffed, Cex's third album, is his hip-hop move. Kidwell rapped like an eager puppy, coming off like a giddy prankster for most of the album. His mic skills were debatable, but his sheer exuberance was undeniable. Amidst all his trash-talking party-jams, though, Kidwell included a number of confessional, self-doubting songs about the struggle for self-expression. TD&H is an uneasy, audacious mix of self-assuredness and self-deprecation. The two urges seemed to be fighting it out in his head. The self-doubt won.
Last summer, Kidwell broke up with his girlfriend. Then he spent months holed up hermetically in his parents' house recording Being Ridden. The result is a powerful, resonant document of Kidwell's confusion and regret. It's both his most confused and most realized work to date.
On Tall, Dark & Handcuffed, Kidwell sounded boisterous and extroverted, and the beats sounded like DJ Premier smeared in Play-Doh. On Being Ridden, Kidwell sounds like he's looking sadly through old photos of himself as a child. He mutters, howls, sings nearly as often as he raps and chants mantras to himself. On "Not Working," he repeats over and over, "I've figured it out/ I'm never gonna get rid of this doubt." On "Earth-Shaking Event," he tries to convince himself that he's OK, his problems aren't huge, he can go back into party mode anytime he wants, but one song later he's mired in his regrets again.
Cex's production style favors an air of deep melancholy and foreboding, similar to the style of the Anticon Collective. Acoustic guitars, spare drumbeats, and spiraling synths and strings pile on top of each other in a claustrophobic mess. Craig Wedren, formerly of Shudder to Think, adds wistful, operatic texture on a few songs. Kidwell has a nasal, somewhat clumsy rap style that a few critics have likened to a young Fresh Prince. The frenzied introspection of Being Ridden unfortunately makes him often sound like a more self-conscious, less nimble Eminem. He's a passable MC, but he's not about to cause Jay-Z any sleepless nights.
A few tracks are slight, quiet acoustic instrumentals that make it seem as if he's trying to get his thoughts together before he opens his mouth again. "You Kiss Like You're Dead" is a harrowing folk song; Kidwell mumbles away on an acoustic guitar before building to a strangled yell on a chorus that wouldn't sound out of place on a Nine Inch Nails track. Other tracks including "Signal Katied" and "Wayback Machine" build slowly and quietly to intense, claustrophobic finales where the music sounds about ready to fall apart.
Most striking is "Cex at Arm's Length"; you don't need to be able to catch Kidwell's references to Thursday night dodgeball in Catonsville to understand that Kidwell is closing the door on his friends and his world, retreating into his own mind. On his 21st birthday, he performed the song at his record release party, standing onstage in front of his friends and screaming, "My heart is buried under Baltimore." It was the sound of inner demons screaming.
I hope Kidwell regains his focus and confidence. I hope the joy and exuberance return to his music. But his personal rut has pushed him miles ahead artistically. On Being Ridden, Kidwell's work no longer depends on context. His pain is universal.