Hip-hop may be the only genre in which an artist's record sales and commercial tie-ins seem to matter more than anything else -- sometimes even more than the music itself. But that's not the case with Alchemist, whose new album, "Russian Roulette," arrives July 18 on Decon Records. Despite the highly commercial résumé of the rapper/producer -- he's crafted hits for Eminem, Mobb Deep, Snoop Dogg, Jadakiss and Nas -- the sound is what counts most here, and this may be the most bizarre, uncompromising and wildly creative album of his 20-year career.
"It's not like any other project I've ever put out before," says Alchemist (real name: Alan Maman). "It started out like a musical collage, and just took on a life of its own. It's more like audio art. Play it from beginning to end and just bug out-that's the way I designed it."
Indeed, more than "artist" or "producer," the job description of "designer" is perhaps the best way to classify Alchemist's role on the album, a 30-track-deep conceptual montage of obscure, cacophonic loops; spacy sound effects; and retro vocal clips inspired by a recent trip to the former Soviet Union. The visit clearly had an impact on the hip-hop impresario, who was born and raised in Beverly Hills, Calif.
"Russia's underrated -- it's bad-ass," Alchemist says, half-joking. "If you grew up in the '80s during the Cold War, you grew up thinking, 'Russia: bad.' Remember [the 1984 film] 'Red Dawn'? I really thought Soviet troopers were going to run up in my sixth grade class. So I've got to give Russia props."
Though Alchemist rapped on his first two solo albums (2004's "First Infantry" and 2009's "Chemical Warfare") and debuted his MC skills in 1993 as part of Cypress Hill-affiliated tween duo the Whooliganz, here he allows hip-hop's recent left-field, Web-fueled vanguard-including Mr. MFN eXquire, Danny Brown, Schoolboy Q, Action Bronson and others-do the rhyming.
"Al's worked with lots of people, from underground artists to huge acts," says Neil Maman, Alchemist's brother and longtime manager. "But this was about reaching out to a younger group, the new wave, and giving them some light."
With a quirky list of guest artists, bizarre song titles including "Decisions Over Veal Orloff" and trippy instrumental tangents, "Russian Roulette" is the cap -- a big, furry ushanka, if you will -- on a prolific period during which Alchemist has taken on increasingly niche projects, from Curren$y's dark 2011 mixtape, "Covert Coup," to the collaborative project Gangrene with fellow indie-rap fave Oh No. Gangrene released its sophomore album, the grimy "Vodka & Ayahuasca," in January on Decon, a creative agency whose in-house label includes recent releases by Goapele, Pusha T and RJD2.
"Because Alchemist creates in a really open manner, it gives us leeway to promote things in a creative manner," Decon's Noah Rubin says. "It doesn't follow the same rote, left-foot, right-foot methodology of most record promotion. "Russian Roulette" has a Soviet, Communist revolution aesthetic, and that's the campaign's starting point, from the album art and liner notes to the propaganda-style leaflets we're handing out instead of normal fliers." Rubin adds there are plans for several videos, most likely directed by Decon co-founder Jason Goldwatch, who helped push Gangrene with a series of twisted viral visuals.
Alchemist is looking forward to developing the album's quirky vision into a full-on multimedia assault. "Songs can come and go -- they're like an appetizer," he says. "But if you have a complete project, with imagery and a cohesive concept, it gets more attention and it can last. We're blurring the line between music and art and making it one big, funky-fresh party."