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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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CunninLynguists take a rap trip
Trio takes hip-hop on the road

American road stories have held a mystique at least since Jack Kerouac penned his classic Beat Generation novel. This year, CunninLynguists made road stories the central theme of their rap verses. The Kentucky hip-hop duo released Strange Journey: Volume 1 in spring, followed by Volume 2 last month.

The discs won't fundamentally reshape music the way On the Road influenced a generation of writers. But the verses that flow across these tracks have their own mystique.

That's because CunninLynguists' travel journals are more than tour diaries. They're reflections on movement across time and space, emotional and physical distance, geographic history and personal departures. It's all set to some of the best hip-hop production I've heard this year.

The first single from Strange Journey: Volume 2, "Close Your Eyes," is a meditative track built on haunting, subdued tension. Emphasizing the strength of their music, CunninLynguists spend the second half of Volume 2 repeating the album's tracks as instrumentals.

Kentucky is traditionally not a pop-music hotbed; it's not Austin or Brooklyn or Seattle. But Cunninlynguists use regional material to their advantage. "Pit Stop" is a narrative interlude set at a fast-food service window. There, the protagonist has forgotten his wallet. He turns to a guy named Barack for help. Barack won't oblige for an order of fries. That doesn't sit well with his hungry constituent, who retorts: "I had a yard sign for you - in Kentucky! My next-door neighbor has Confederate flag curtains! I could have got my ass kicked!"

Not all Strange Journey songs are that lighthearted. "Georgia" confronts the history of Southern racism in its opening verse: "The clay is running red from the blood that done been shed down in Georgia; now we weeping to the sound from the color of the ground down in Georgia."

Most of this group's songs aren't that political. More than anything, CunninLynguists use travel as a metaphor for personal transformation. You can hear it in the chorus of "The Distance": "Gonna keep on walkin' forward, never turning back. I can feel the distance."

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