Tahj Kjelland has lightened up.
Not that the longtime Missoula rapper was ever dour – the social worker and spoken-word artist has always been positive and progressive in his lyrical messages.
On his new album, “Sol Dream,” he decided to turn toward inward, philosophical issues more than the social and political subjects found on his last record, “Sweatshop Sneakers.”
The sound, too, has brightened up, with live horns and backup vocals creating a catchy amalgam of funk, soul, R&B and reggae backing his lyrics.
“We really wanted to make an eclectic, cross-genre feel,” Kjelland said. “Sometimes I don’t even know if I can describe myself as a hip-hop artist anymore.”
After all, Kjelland sings a bit on the album, too. Outside his solo work, he also plays bass with local blues band Mudslide Charley and raps with Guerrilla Radio, a local Rage Against the Machine tribute act.
“Sol Shine” has a distinctively ’70s and ’80s sheen to the production, courtesy of Kjelland, Ryan Maynes and Max Allyn, Kjelland’s brother, who runs his own studio in L.A.
Maynes runs his own studio here in Missoula, where he moved after a run with Arlo, a rock band that once had a touring gig opening for Weezer. Locally, he helped lead a power-pop band, Secret Powers, that was known for his sharp arrangements and Missoula rock rarity: three-part vocal harmonies. Outside the rock realm, he was responsible for the multifaceted beats on an album with rapper Traff the Wiz, “These Things Take Time.”
Kjelland said Maynes was a great collaborator, one who helped develop the multi-genre feel.
“Several tunes wouldn’t have been fleshed out the way they were if it wasn’t for Shmed’s musicality,” he said. “I can come in with ideas and we can flesh them out pretty quickly and then just build off of them from there.”
In addition to Kjelland’s always positive rhymes, the music is buoyed by horn players Nathan Crawford, Tanner Fruit, Kyle Gillette and Barbara Shinave. Many of the tunes have big vocal hooks, courtesy of a list of backup singers: Margi Cates, Andrea Harsell, Emily Kodama, Cami Coté, Joan Zen and Tanna Dahl.
The extra help brings out the broad sound of the album. Opener “Carnival” kicks it off with a bouncy, ascending-descending vocodered synth hook; and “Wind” matches a ’90s hip-hop beat with a soul feel and touches of modern electronics. “The Garden” revisits 1980s reggae, and “Food for the Sol” embellishes a piano-funk beat with a Parliament-style vocal hook and horn charts.
Like many tunes, the latter features lines about pursuing your own path, “plotting/creatively scheming/tis’ the season/art is the reason/I keep seeking conditions of Garden of Eden,” that suit the genres he’s tapping.
“I was trying to tap more into the mainstream with the sound,” he said, “(and) be a little bit more subversive with the messaging, be a little bit more articulate with the double metaphor to draw a more expansive audience,” he said.
Kjelland also has a new live band, with drums, keys, bass and two backup vocalists, one that will have its second-ever show on Saturday. (See box.)
He spent about a year on the album, which seems natural – he was completing graduate work and working full time.
That includes his Express to Speak gigs, where he uses spoken word to help students express themselves – he’s worked with 3,500 kids across Montana to date – and his day job with Willard Alternative High School as a clinician in the Comprehensive School Community Treatment Program.
He said in broad strokes, his job is helping students decide what they want, which coincides nicely with the themes on “Sol Dream.”
“How do we actually move forward and be able to create what you want to see in life?” he said.