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One A.M.
Chocolate Industries

When hip-hop chose up sides — party people over here, deep thinkers over there — somebody forgot to tell Diverse. The Chicago MC's debut album, One A.M., is complex and confident, and even if a lot of its signature sounds are the work of other, bigger names, credit has to go to Diverse's expansive vision for bringing it all together.

Following a philosophy of "free your ass and the mind will follow," "One A.M. kicks off with a trio of brag-and-battle tracks produced by RJD2, who handles about half of the album and brings enough heat to hopefully get him out of Shadow's shadow for good. The stinging guitar of "Certified" and the dusty organ on "Uprock" are a one-two punch of funk, setting things up for "Big Game," where Cannibal Ox's Vast Aire jumps from samurai swordplay to George Michael jokes in the space of a few bars ("I hit your girl like, Wham!/ She was like, Wake me up — before you go ...").

Before you can say "I love the '80s," Diverse sobers up the party with "Ain't Right," a hustler's blues where "two bodies found slumped in the front of an S-Class" feels like a neighborhood tragedy instead of something cool from last week's "Sopranos" episode. Madlib lays down a rumbling, staticky bass line on one of his more earthbound productions, typical of the album's contemplative second act. With echoes of Gil Scott-Heron and Eugene McDaniels, the ominous "Under the Hammer" is less dramatic but even more bleak, as Diverse and Jean Grae expose an America that leaves too many people feeling "crushed under the weight of daylight," scrambling to pay the bills and keep their phones from being cut off.

That level of realism and storytelling is hard to sustain if your name isn't, say, Mos Def, who appeared with Diverse on the Chocolate Industries compilation track "Wylin' Out." Diverse's style is similar to that of Mos Def or J-Live, but he definitely has a little bit of a charisma deficit — his verses don't pop out of the speakers the way the beats do. That weakness seems even more pronounced on a debut album stocked with underground veterans like Lyrics Born, who utterly destroys RJD2's hyperactive beat on "Explosive." Even Diverse's zingy choruses get flattened by a lazy metaphor now and then ("We keep it flyer than a 747").

But when an album ends with two songs as beautiful as "Leaving" and "In Accordance," those thoughts wash away like the waves on Latyrx's "Balcony Beach," and float into the sky like the smoke in Black Star's "Respiration."

Prefuse 73 concocts a soul-melting mix of drums, bells, and swoony Stereolab vocals on "Leaving," and Diverse wraps himself up in it, staring at the stars and wishing he could lift off from "a planet with no dreamers." Prefuse only produces two tracks and two interludes on One A.M., but their burbling bass, handclaps and warm keyboards are the album's secret weapon. (Any lingering argument that P73 is really some kind of glitch/techno artist should be out the window by now.)

Songs like "Leaving" don't come around very often, but "In Accordance" is practically one of a kind — a merging of hip-hop and jazz-minded indie music (or indie-minded jazz, Chicago style) that manages to sound organic instead of forced. Ted Sirota, Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Rob Mazurek (Isotope 217) provide Diverse with his exit music, and One A.M. winds to a close. Time's up.

by Dave Renard

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