Cook Thugless turn inward on their fourth studio LP, “Luxe.”
Cook Thugless always have been a fascinating fusion of the trip hop of De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest and fellow Jersey City-ites P.M. Dawn and the jazz groove of Groove Collective, Gang Starr and fellow Brooklyn-ites Brooklyn Funk Essentials. But with their fourth studio LP, Luxe, they get extremely experimental, particularly in regards to the vocals, and with a much harder edge, sometimes almost like Wu-Tang Clan or even Notorious B.I.G.
Trombonist Keith Lalley, who co-produced with guitarist Jace Limb, is the wizard behind most the vocal trickery. Throughout, Luxe demonstrates their progression as producers. Limb also mixed the album, designed its art and plays tasteful jazz-schooled licks on several tracks, along with bassist Riley Byrne.
For the first time on a studio LP, Thugless have stepped away from an overt concept, such as their 2013 debut, Time, 2015’s Space and 2017’s standout Money. However, in contrast to the luxurious title, an autobiographical runs throughout about the joy and struggle of being a talented and productive independent band.
Luxe opens with “Gemini,” which soon will get the LP’s fourth video. The tune features sweet, inventive rhymes by Jack Blerry in contrast to co-front man JeanLous’ massive attack. “Stockholm” is a fun duet between them in a nod to one of the happiest and healthiest cities in the world. A percolating pop up-sounding track complements Jerry’s breathy vocal and JeanLouis’ bilingual tapestry.
My favorite track, the fun, funky “DAT MOFK,” the LP’s first single and video from last spring, is next. To me, it stands out because of the edgy humor, the sultry Spanish feature of their Rutgers pal Shyrley, JeanLouis’ and Blerry’s impressive rhymes, and jazzy vibes that tie it all together.
“Kobra Kommander” is a band bio with a nod to the title animated character. It’s also one of the tracks that most experiments with the vocals, which often are turned up high and fast by Lalley. Yet, “Kobra Kommander” is one of the hardest-edged tracks on the LP.
Up next is “Lockjaw,” a June video that also features Shyrley and stars another Rutgers pal, Brandon Flynn of Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why. In a tune that explores the trappings of celebrity, I love the line, “The older I get, the less that I know.”
“Figaro” is drummer J-Titty’s turn at the mic with a Latin-style rap that is humorous, yet hard-edged and well-meaning as it exclaims that the band mates will be “Thugless for life.” Amen to that, brother!
“Yung Bubz the Gato” is the most vocally experimental of the 10 tracks with an opening low from the bowels of Satan to a robotic high. These vocals by Lalley lead into a frantic rap by Blerry.
Another band tale is told in “For the Squad” through the metaphor of a broken-down car used to express the hopefulness of expressing themselves through their music. This one features a particularly impressive and inventive rapid-fire rhyme by JeanLouis backed by the sweet jazzy horns of Lalley and saxophonist Brian Clines and a lilting jazz vibe throughout by Limb.
“The Devil” is featured in the latest and most expansive video, which was produced by their Jersey City pals in Pyrrhic Productions. More fun vocal trickery by Lalley introduces a crazy tale about the hardship of life and death told by JeanLouis. Amazing lines on the second verse about not being able to afford to die lead to a great abrupt ending of the spooky chorus.
On the closing “Love Is a Wild Thing,” Blerry looks back at the majority of the band’s freshman year at Rutgers when they were young lions and had to learn the difference between real love and their lustful animal instincts among the fast female cheetah cubs at the school.
For Thugless’ next video, “Gemini,” Thugless return to their alma mater. The clip is expected to drop soon, along with one for “Figaro.”