OCnotes (aka Otis Calvin III) makes the rest of Seattle's music scene seem lazy by comparison. He's a pure slasher: producer/rapper/DJ/singer/beat maker/instrumentalist. He's released 35 albums (both LPs and EPs) that blend experimental hip-hop, jazz, gospel, soul, rock, and whatever other genre archetype he feels like exploring in the moment. He's a part of the Black Constellation collective that includes Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction, and somehow sticks out as the most outside the box mind in a group of progressive musical weirdos. And in May, OCnotes delivered Color Wheel, his best album yet.
Color Wheel begins on a calm note with “Black, White, and Red All Over,” where keyboardist Darrius Wilrich lays down gospel-inspired melody on a Fender Rhodes that welcomes the listener like a piano player in a hotel lobby, but with the slightest tinge of edge. Things quickly transition into the highly produced lush spacey swells of electronic sound that has become the calling card of Black Constellation members (Erik Blood engineered and mixed Color Wheel) as soon as the track switches to “Wish.” It's a testament to the sonic diversity which permeates the entire album.
OCnotes doesn’t rely on verbosity the same way some of his peers do. His voice often takes a back seat in the mix to the musical worlds in which the reside, leaving lyrics somewhat obscured. Rather than dabbling in wordplay, he keeps his imagery clear and sometimes lets repetition and his sampled voice overs drive home his messages. Themes of militarization come up via an old clip promoting war bonds that ends “Wish.” On “Will You Lay Your Life Down for Me?,” he merely repeats variations of the song’s title again and again. He makes the simple words stick while eschewing traditional notions of song structure. The distinction between OCnotes and his fellow MCs crystallizes on “Unfinished Business,” where he steps fully into the producer role and lets deliver Ishmael Butler (Shabazz Palaces) and Stasia Irons (THEESatisfaction) and their wordier lyrics. That’s not to say he can’t turn an affecting rhyme, as he displays on “PD”: “You know your wrong when your watching me / You know your wrong when your stopping me / and make a young brotha cop a plea / That’s why I feel no sympathy / for your infantry / PD.”
OCnotes greatest strength comes from his ability to be a thematic chameleon. Color Wheel can confront police brutality and class disparity on “Hum Drum Killer” and “PD” one moment and also have space for “Blowing Up My Phone”—a bubbly R&B tune about people calling him too much, which tagged on voicemail clips reveal was his actual (super long) voicemail greeting—without any of it seeming out of place. And there’s simply not another MC in Seattle who could pull off a song like “The Fall,” which sports a sly rock guitar lead that blurs genre lines without ever feeling like anything that would be considered rap rock in the traditional sense. Despite these dramatic shifts, the listener never gets the bends. It’s almost like his brain is a radio tuning knob, taking listeners on a ride as it spins between stations and static.
Spin the Color Wheel. It’ll land somewhere worthwhile.