Rjyan Kidwell makes me feel mad old. He's barely into his twenties, and Being Ridden is the fourth full-length he's dropped under the Cex name in as many years. Having mastered clank & grind IDM and goofball-white-man's party rap on his previous albums, Kidwell now keeps the mic in one hand, the acoustic guitar in the other and the laptop nearby. While last year's Tall, Dark and Handcuffed alternated between somewhat one-dimensional party jams and upbeat excavations of childhood and high school memories, Being Ridden is somewhat darker and as such automatically demands to be taken more seriously, fair or not.
However, the darker notes are well integrated into Being Ridden's grab bag of styles. Kidwell has gained confidence in his slightly awkward voice as a singer and rapper, and while he'll never be Rakim on the mic, he can sit comfortably next to other melanin-challenged rappers like Gold Chains and Princess Superstar. But while those two sport cartoonish personas on wax, Cex successfully inverts the Kool Keith formula: where Keith's many alter-egos serve to push outward aspects of his personality to outrageous heights, Kidwell uses the dichotomy between himself and Cex as a way to mine his inner depths.
To that end, Cex has kept his beats next-level and branched out, sneaking acoustic guitars in and around the rhythms, dropping in unedited field recordings as a breather ("Other Countries"), holding back from rhyming for an intense spoken-word style on the opener "The Wayback Machine," and contrasting guest Craig Wedren's shimmering croon with his own punkish howl. Venetian Snares shows up to add threatening violins and cellos to "Stamina," a two-minute burst of high-wire braggadocio that underlines the new wrinkles. Even when Cex is giving the "middle finger to the indie rock singer" and wack MCs, we can hear him thrashing against his fear that he just might be one himself.
When Kidwell poses á la David Bowie's Heroes on the cover, he's clowning but simultaneously tipping his well-posed hands: just as Bowie's late-'70s Berlin trilogy found him assimilating his runaway personas into one complex artist, Being Ridden finds Kidwell/Cex achieving synergistic power. On "Earth Shaking Event," Kidwell sandblasts away the depression caused by a breakup by throwing on his Cex cape, then immediately turns around and explains how he keeps "the real Rjyan safe" by keeping "Cex at Arm's Length."
Technically, a record that's as all over the map of styles as Being Ridden has no business being loved by anyone but self-styled eclectics, but it coheres around Cex's ability to swing from strangely morbid stories, through haunting instrumentals, to bassbin-rattling indie-rap jams, and come out on the other side of catharsis. Kidwell is aiming at unedited truth, and on Being Ridden he's getting close. By the end I don't feel so old anymore.