There are a lot of things that Othello gets right on his new LP Alive At The Assembly Line. Starting with the right influences. The early Roots aesthetic (Organix, Do You Want More?!!!??! eras) informs a good chunk of the decidedly jazzy production on this album — note the interplay between the keys and the drums on “Cycle”, “Place to Be”, “Smooth It Out”, etc. It’s a style that combines easily with Othello’s other obvious (if somewhat more integrated) reference points — Native Tongues, other “conscious” rap of the early to mid 90s. Also, like his forefathers, Othello tends to keep things positive where lyrics are concerned. Personal struggle with obstacles and general uplift are the topics hit upon most often.
And it’s hard to be critical when an artist’s heart and head seem to be in the right place. Nevertheless, it must be said that Othello seems to be stuck in this particular space. The production on Alive…certainly never offends, but it doesn’t seem to go much out of the way to find its own voice either. Most of tracks are pleasant and bright but in a way that feels a little superficial (the notable exception, ironically, is “Shallow”, where a nasal key loop pulls the mood in a slightly different direction).
Ditto for Othello’s lyrics. While one can hardly be faulted for trying to inject a little bit of positivity into the hip-hop landscape these days, Othello’s platitudes only take us skin deep. He comes off like the coworker you know from the office, the guy with the right outlook, who says all the right things. But actually, if you stop to think about it, you barely know that guy. It’s like that with Othello — 14 tracks later, it’s apparent that he’s an upstanding, somewhat talented individual. Additionally, improbably, he remains a total stranger.