About halfway through the lead single from Kassa Overall’s third studio album, Animals, the Seattle-based, ex-Brooklynite drummer, producer, and MC introduces an alter ego of sorts. Amid the cosmic jazz and methodical rap of “Ready to Ball,” a pitched-up Overall scoffs, “If you ain’t got no money, then shut the fuck up!” Given that his music doesn’t necessarily scream mass appeal, it might be a double-edged taunt.

Like Overall’s previous album, 2020’s I Think I’m Good, his Warp debut is an audacious freeform collage that leans on a community of collaborators to break down ancient false dichotomies between jazz and hip-hop, organic and electronic, spontaneous improvisation and meticulous editing. I Think I’m Good was a dreamlike labyrinth, with memoir, mental health, and Black struggle as guideposts. Animals is similarly thick with ideas, and in certain moments Overall’s heady meld of genres, lyrical conceits, and gifted guest performers can sound sublime. Overall has understandably tired of being defined narrowly by jazz-rap or self-care. But Animals, though a friendly hang, is a bit too precious to give a clear picture of what’s next.

On the prior album’s standouts, such as the ethereal “Please Don’t Kill Me” or propulsive “Got Me a Plan,” the music transcended and rendered irrelevant the decades-old discussion between jazz and hip-hop, mapping out an astral realm between Flying Lotus and Overall’s kindred drummer-beatmaker Makaya McCravenAnimals is at its most rewarding when it proceeds along a similar post-everything trajectory. That’s particularly true on centerpiece “The Lava Is Calm,” which lavishes folk, samba, and orchestral soul with Theo Croker’s serene trumpet, a noise-rock guitar solo, and furious drumming that’s like a one-man instrumental equivalent to Overall’s Warp labelmate Squarepusher. The handful of tracks that are wordless, or nearly so, are intermittently engrossing, but sooner or later they run back into jazz-hop awkwardness. Vijay Iyer’s eerie piano sounds great with fidgety electronic beats on penultimate track “The Score Was Made,” but then Overall lets the percussion go all “Rock the Bells,” without using the famous original sample, and it takes you right out of it. The cerebral jumble of “Still Ain’t Find Me,” one of several numbers with saxophone by Tomoki Sanders, requires a bold appetite for jazz with vinyl scratching. Overall’s own cadences as a rapper, meanwhile, tend to be measured in a way that can seem hammy (“jewelry” is “JEWEL-uh-RY”). This unfortunate habit undercuts the ornate jazz futurism of songs like Croker-backed “Make My Way Back Home,” which also enlists Nick Hakim for a sonorous guest vocal.

The most cohesive track on Animals is “Clock Ticking,” which brings fellow Warp signee Danny Brown’s yawping mischievousness and NYC indie-rap linchpin Wiki’s grizzled introspection to noirish boom-bap, sounding something like a Madlib collab without the samples. It’s thoroughly engaging, but even here, the pairing of these individualistic talents with a live instrumental emulation of golden-age hip-hop, however virtuosic, seems arbitrary. Six-minute finale “Going Up,” the song most likely to put a smile on your face, recalls the charm of Chance the Rapper circa 2015’s “Sunday Candy,” but it feels needlessly labored. Overall has compared the song’s bustling instrumental intro to “the part where Neo gets kicked out of the Matrix… but when you get spit out, you actually get spit out in the bush in Africa”—and that’s before we get to Lil B rapping non sequiturs atop Tomoki Sanders’ pillowy saxophone peals, or Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces rapping through orchestral swells, in an apparent nod to infants and their pacifiers, “Baby treated me like a binky.”

Overall is an ace drummer with credits that run from Arto Lindsay to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and a savvy producer going back to his Tumblr-era rise in the camp of indie rappers Das RacistAnimals can best be enjoyed as a display of prowess by adept jazz players and distinctive MCs. Overall’s lofty creative ambitions have long been appealing, and he hinted at fitting grandeur in a statement upon the album’s announcement, where he drew connections between the album’s title and his thoughts on race, freedom, and the entertainment industry. We never really quite find out what those are. “It’s Animals,” the closest Animals comes to a title track, depicts two pilots talking about a “disruptive passenger,” as ruminative piano is disrupted by elephant roars. “There’s a large percentage of us that are not going to do OK,” Overall recently told The New York Times, linking the title concept back to personal well-being. “So maybe those are the people we consider animals.” This expansive menagerie of metaphorical creatures is not particularly manifest on the record, where you’re more likely to drift away to longtime Overall collaborator Francis and the Lights crooning, smoothly if not particularly meaningfully, “Life is very long/I could’ve gave you everything/But you can’t have it all.” Animals is a provocative proposition with flashes of inspired bricolage, by a likable veteran muso, but for something so fussed over, it’s a little half-baked.

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Kassa Overall: Animals