Album: Dungeon Family

Even in Darkness, Arista
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The domination of Jay-Z's "big pimpin'" orthodoxy has rendered 2001 a pretty dreary year for American hip hop, all things considered, with only Cannibal Ox's debut providing a strong new voice for the future. Kudos, then, to Dungeon Family for this entertaining and inventive album, easily the best rap record of 2001 and a late contender for album of the year.

Dungeon Family is the Atlanta hip-hop collective formed by members of Outkast and Goodie Mob, orbiting around the Earthtone III and Organized Noize production teams responsible for Outkast's Stankonia (to which Even in Darkness, with its blend of madcap rhyming and falsetto soul refrains, should perhaps be regarded as the follow-up). Maybe it's something to do with the climate, or with Atlanta's emergence as a centre of black pride, but there's a relaxed, engaging tone to the album that recalls the earlier soul family run by Sly Stone, and a surrealist prankster spirit clearly indebted to George Clinton's P-Funk circus. As Goodie Mob's Khudjo says on next year's surefire monster hit "Crooked Booty", "We act like life is crazy/ Even though it's oh so rough" – a philosophy that pays huge dividends throughout the album, not least in its refreshing lack of antagonism.

Indeed, the sole reference to guns stands out starkly, a rare intrusion of hackneyed imagery into an album on which you're more likely to hear "infamy" rhymed with "epiphany", and on which Big Rube's attitude on "What Iz Rap?" is more typical of the family spirit towards gangsterism: "Niggas gangstafied/ Now all they want to show is straps, ice and brands/ Nigga might be bad, been mistreated enough/ Ya think they need they brother to mislead 'em another inch?"

Instead, the emphasis is on strength, pride and imagination, with tracks such as the epic fanfare "Excalibur" employing swordplay as a metaphor for knowledge, and the cool, slick "Follow the Light" (another surefire hit) acknowledging that: "All of the lights, they lead to something." The family's verbal strength is most broadly demonstrated on "6 Minutes", a pass-the-mic cut on which the likes of Big Boi, Big Gipp, Backbone and Big Rube introduce themselves with vastly more distinctive individual identities than any rap crew since the original Wu-Tang Clan.

Musically, meanwhile, the album combines audacious comic invention with rumbustious, propulsive energy, exercising both mind and body with the ghetto maelstrom of "Emergency" and the Kraftwerk-derived techno twitch of "Follow the Light". Most extraordinary of all, perhaps, is the formidable "Rollin'", which starts out as Zappa-esque avant-garde doowop before rising steadily to an emotionally charged gospel climax, a transformation without parallel in hip hop. It's wonderful stuff, full of style, smiles and similes, just the thing to chase the seasonal blues away.