Despite the vitality of Japan’s hip-hop scene at the moment, it’s rare for artists to make any dents in the consciousness of Anglophone listeners — the enduring popularity of Teriyaki Boyz’ 2006 track “Tokyo Drift (Fast & Furious)” notwithstanding.
Tokyo-based trio Dos Monos vaulted to the front of the pack when its debut album, “Dos City,” was released on adventurous U.S.-based indie label Deathbomb Arc last year. The secret to the threesome’s (admittedly modest) overseas success is hardly surprising: They don’t sound like the dominant modes of current American hip-hop, and are tremendously fun to listen to even if you don’t have a clue what they’re rapping about.
A typical Dos Monos track is an explosion of comic book energy, in which the musical and lyrical elements alike — courtesy of MCs Taitan, Botsu and rapper-producer Zo Zhit — seem locked in a constant tussle to outdo each other.
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“Dos Siki,” which is available on streaming platforms now and due for a vinyl release on Deathbomb Arc later in the year, ups the ante even further. Though it’s billed as the group’s second album, with just four tracks clocking in at under 16 minutes, it’s the kind of release that sticklers (and Apple Music) would insist on calling an EP.
Dos Monos could easily have filled out the tracklist by including some of the singles the group has released over the past year. That they chose not to indicates a level of confidence that’s evident as soon as you hit play.
What strikes you first about “Dos Siki” is its density. The opening track, “The Rite of Spring Monkey,” has the bewildering effect of listening to multiple YouTube videos at once, smashing together the sounds of a traditional Japanese festival, discordant Captain Beefheart guitars, boom-bap rhythms and dialogue from Samuel Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.” The album’s closer, “Mammoth vs. Dos Monos,” goes even further, incorporating salsa, jazz fusion, Sudanese pop and a bombastic synthesizer riff that seems to rip the track open every time it sounds.
While U.S. producer Madlib is an obvious point of reference, “Dos Siki” is also like a high-definition descendent of “Paul’s Boutique”-era Beastie Boys, its magpie free-for-all harking back to a halcyon age before record labels got litigious about having their back catalogs plundered. Whereas Zo Zhit was often content to leave a loop running on “Dos City,” nothing on “Dos Siki” stays in place for long: Its samples are constantly getting chopped and pitch-shifted, or popping up again in different tracks.
The group’s lyrics are just as restless and voracious. Though the album’s tracks are nominally themed around the four seasons (the “siki” — or shiki —of the title), this is just a starting point for the three rappers’ dizzying volleys of wordplay. You have to study the lyric sheet to catch all the references, which in “The Rite of Spring Monkey” alone range from Japanese internet memes to Theodor Adorno, the Incredible String Band and the Salem witch trials.
When Botsu declares during “Estrus” that the album and its predecessor are akin to Outkast’s “Aquemini” and “Stankonia,” two of the most venerated records in the hip-hop canon, his boast is so brazen it verges on trolling. But at a time when some of the biggest names in U.S. hip-hop are releasing bloated double albums to clock up Spotify plays, the quality-over-quantity approach of “Dos Siki” pays off. By constraining its maximalist assault to a minimalist running time, Dos Monos has produced an album that’s small but perfectly formed.
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