Review: DJ Lucas - "Lucas' Mansion III"

DJ Lucas - Lucas' Mansion III
(2017 Dark World)

Weighing in at a beefy 22 songs, the latest project by Massachusetts native Lucas Kendall finds the rapper/producer oddly wedged in the crevice between laissez-faire Soundcloud experimentation and the inventive, Garageband-sourced sound that's landed him production credits for arthouse emcees like Wiki, Antwon, and even the wildly prolific CHXPO. 

When we last saw Lucas in late July, he'd turned in Unleash These Bangers, Too, his most polished and accessible effort to date. Outsourcing much of its production to fellow New England beat-makers, he paired his conversational storytelling and ear for dissonant, autotuned melodies with an incredibly diverse array of timbres. On "Arm/Leg," he reflected on his rural "farm kid" roots to the bounce of west-coast percussion. He was an emo R&B singer on "1 Phone Call Away," and a malfunctioning robot spitting over wonky Wii Sports jazz arrangements on "In My Element."

Sacrificing a bit of his populist appeal, Lucas takes almost total control behind the boards on LMIII, approaching sound design with his signature genre-twisting, iconoclastic attitude while dipping deeper into autobiographical waters than he has in the past. Early single "New Gear" laces a funky bassline with trills of slide guitar, imbuing the beat with a weird folk-rock flavor without delving into the gimmicky country-rap aesthetic one might have imagined based on my description alone. Lucas' blends of sounds don't often sound great on paper, but in practice they just work because they're true to his experience. The arrangements here are hazy and nostalgic: the perfect complement to Lucas' memories of basketball practices, summers spent growing up around UMass' campus, and his love for the local scene of weirdo-rappers he's held together as Dark World Records' unofficial figurehead. 

The record's most impressive cuts find Lucas playing the role of an indie rock songwriter, taking after his father, who fronted a few jangle-pop outfits in the 80s and 90s. While contemporaries like Lil Peep and Mackned are content to exclusively cull their samples from midwestern emo records, Lucas' production feels more akin to The Strokes' wiry guitar-pop. Despite its 808s and tinny hi-hats "One More Day" is a sundae-sweet love song that swells with hammond organ samples and malt-shop sentimentality. It's another track that's bizarre in theory, but plays out naturally: even as his voice warbles against wavering pitch-correction software, Lucas effortlessly draws an ooze of melancholia from his breezy chord progression, and the lyrics are just simple enough not to sound forced. It's far from his most technically proficient work, but it stands out as a truly unique composite of musical styles. 

Even the classic Lucas ethos sounds fresh on LMIII. Free-jazz tune "Pretty Please" feels like a collage of quips cut from text messages, some of them too personal or esoteric to understand, others hitting home on a lovable, down-to-earth level. It's the sort of cut that makes you feel like you've been close friends with the artist for years -- die-hard Dark World fans will be all-too familiar with Lucas' desire to be a small-town hero, his baseball references, and his off-hand allusions to unexplained events from his past that we're not meant to know about. There's always some suble/mundane/charming aspect of his character to excavate from the lyrics: it's the kind of songwriting Genius.com was founded for.

Lucas' Mansion III is currently my second-favorite installment in the DJ Lucas canon, but it's primed to take the top spot soon. It's an effort meant to grow on the listener, concealing subtly brilliant lines and hooks that take patience to get into the groove of. Even if the consistency of the songs can be a little off sometimes, it's tough to get bored bumping his music: he's always tinkering with new sounds and packing them with honest, intelligent lyrical content.