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Four Tet, ‘Rounds’ (Domino) / Prefuse 73, ‘One Word Extinguisher’ (Warp)

Since Timbaland and the Neptunes started alchemizing freaky beats into platinum rap, broke-ass avant-indie hip-hop producers have surely been doubting their career paths. So show ’em some love–not all rap fans are MC freaks, after all, and there’s plenty of fertile creative turf left for instrumental hip-hop to plow.

Just ask Kieran Hebden, an occasional indie-rock guitarist whose solo project Four Tet has rescued down-tempo electronica from solemn techies and wine-bar burnouts. Last year’sPause was as winsome and pastoral as music composed on a laptop can be; Rounds is a more varied trip, with a darker vibe suggesting the influence of Hebden’s labelmate Dan Snaith of Manitoba. It peaks with the funky harpsichord of “As Serious as Your Life,” a song so tuneful you wish someone would pen verses for it. And since Hebden is currently producing Beth Orton’s new LP (his first full-length collaboration with a singer), that just may happen.

Scott Herren made his mark as Prefuse 73 with 2001’s Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, razor-editing rappers’ sampled voices into verbal hailstorms. One Word gets the blade out again on “The End of Biters-International,” a1:17 dirty bomb of phonemic shrapnel. But with a few exceptions (among them a sharp Mr. Lif cameo), the record mostly sidelines vocals to put smoother jazz-funk textures through the wood chipper. It’s a busy, dazzling record, though more detours–like “Storm Returns,” a dreamy guitar-and-beats collage–would help aerate things. If hip-hop is ideally about integrating all musical shades under a groove, why target-market?