Friday, February 02, 2007

Drive Safe: The Emperor’s New Overcoat

By Leile One

It is the year 2000. The setting is a crowded nightclub called Slim’s in the SOMA district of San Francisco. You are but one face in a throng of sweaty, blunted heads, all of whom anxiously await the onstage emergence of tonight’s headlining act: mythical West Coast hip hop legend, Aceyalone. You will bear in mind that at this particular moment in history, Aceyalone has yet to put out a bad record. His 1998 masterpiece A Book of Human Language is still relatively fresh on the mind of everyone present this evening. Project Blowed, the Los Angeles-based hip hop artist collective which he helped give birth to, has already been widely credited with forever changing the way rappers spit rhymes back in the early 1990’s. We are about to witness a pioneer in his prime, and we are justifiably excited when Aceyalone finally hits the stage. And to the utter surprise of everyone in the room, his hype man ends up stealing the whole damn show...

The hype man who stole our hearts and minds that night was none other than Busdriver, who would, thereafter, go on to release a slew of solo and collaborative projects – each record brilliant in its own right – and who would arguably go on to dethrone his onetime mentor Aceyalone as King of the West Coast Rhymers. Even in his “support role” that night at Slim’s, Busdriver was showcasing a formidable stage presence and kicking freestyles between Acey’s songs that would stick with us nearly a decade later. We had caught glimpses of the then-dreadlocked, bearded Blowed protégé on Fat Jack’s Cater to the DJ compilation from 1999, and some had already heard rumors regarding the skills of the man who seemed destined to take the torch from his elders within the LA underground and usher in a new millennium of dope shit from the Southern Cali hip hop scene. But nobody at the club was ready for the type of off-the-dome, off-the-wall flow delivery (think: breakneck speed with an undetectable stop for breath every sixteen bars or so) and punch lines Busdriver was hitting between Aceyalone’s verses that night. By the end of the set, it seemed as though Acey himself had realized who had become the impromptu star of the evening. He humbly asked Busdriver to “take us out” of the night’s festivities, and ‘Driver’s freestyled response to the crowd was classic: “Take you out? What are you my prom date? Whose aim is to make my penis elongate?” And so on. Dude went on for like five minutes on some absurdly fresh improvised whim...the crowd went nuts.

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Seven years, several world tours and a handful of exquisite recordings later, Busdriver seems poised to make good on the unspoken promise he made onstage that crazy evening back in 2000: he is about to be recognized by the indie world at large as the underground hip hop messiah we’ve been unknowingly waiting for to save us from the squalor of rap as we know it. Signed to Epitaph Records (home to The Coup and Sage Francis; a few current hip hop hipster darlings), for his latest release RoadKill Overcoat, Busdriver may finally see the type of promotion and distribution to make him a force to be reckoned with on the “cool kids” scene nationwide. As a testament to the label’s faith in their new guy, they even produced a hilarious and presumably expensively shot commercial to help hype the new record. Were people like myself who have been following Busdriver throughout his career surprised to see him as the Myspace “Featured Artist” last week? You betcha. But then again, X Clan is the featured artist this week, so the plot can always get a bit thicker.

For better or for worse, we of the world of snobby underground hip hop aficionados are going to be forced to share one of our prized possessions with the world of Indie-Fucks at large with the release of RoadKill Overcoat. It is exactly the type of album that is sure to score big points with various outputs of hipster media due to its abundance of the following qualities: sarcasm, clever tongue-in-cheek political pokes, witty social commentary, self-consciousness, impressive use of vocabulary (can you think of any other rapper right now who can use the word “misanthropic” in a verse and not sound like a nerdy jackass?), danceable electronic grooves, and overall denseness of beats and rhymes. If this is what it means to “sell out” to a larger audience, an artist never made it look so complex and defensible.

It was gracious of Epitaph to include the song lyrics for each track on the album in the liner notes of the CD. And, take my word for it; you’re probably going to need it, considering the lightning bolt style of delivery that Busdriver tends to employ on pretty much every song. Your perception of this record will change dramatically if you take the time to do a “read-along” with a listen of each tune one time when you have a day to yourself. The written lyrical content of RoadKill Overcoat alone is enough to place this album on a pedestal of rare artistic achievements in hip hop music. The polysyllabic rhyme structures that Busdriver lays out are nothing new to his longtime fans and followers, but on RKO he takes it to a whole ’nother level entirely. For example, on “Ethereal Driftwood”:

You know what we want...
But I gave them a protagonist
The color of cinnamon and mahogany,
Filtered through award-winning cinematography,
And the motherfucking discography of a G

As far as subject matter, the usual suspects are once again verbally manhandled by Busdriver, still clever as hell within the sometimes-cryptic word-webs woven into each track. Your typical “bad guys” (the government, the yuppie scum, the record industry) are all dealt with in a way that is fun, rather than preachy, by the time the listener is just a few songs into the record. What is worth mentioning is the group of individuals who end up taking the dis harder than anyone else on the list – the twentysomething, college-aged, neo-hippie “activists”; you know, the guys who populate your typical American post-secondary campus passing out pamphlets, relishing wicked-awesome bong hits, abstaining from meat products and saving the world “one dude at a time”? The guys who generally end up going to law school and becoming CEO’s of shitty American corporations once their undergrad stints are over and it’s time to pay some bills? Those bro’s are dealt with most harshly on RKO, especially on the leadoff single “Kill Your Employer”, where ‘Driver remarks:

Let me guess, you’re a macrobiotic cuisine prep-cook
With a text book liberal outlook in an oppressed-nook
Couch surfing, but your Dad’s got employment history at Halliburton,
While you dress like wild mermen...

Busdriver’s decision to bypass the easy arguments, such as “President Bush is a dick”, or “giant corporations suck”, and instead go straight for the jugular of the flawed nature of the (relatively small) current American resistance movement ultimately puts him in a category of his very own, or, at least, within rap music. What we are witnessing is “conscious hip hop” folding in on itself; all of a sudden the movement takes a look in the mirror and becomes critical of its own consciousness. While it may seem wrong to fragment the already miniscule Leftist population in this country into even smaller factions, it’s good to see an artist who is able to separate the boys from the men and call some people on their shit.

Production wise, RoadKill Overcoat is solid. This should come as no surprise, as the duties have been split between Los Angeles super-producers Nobody and Boom Bip, both of whom possess favorable resumes from the projects they’ve delivered over the past decade. Every track on the album is dense, multi-layered, and contains instrumental subtleties that are easily missed on a first listen. Don’t make the mistake I did in attempting to hear RKO for the first time on your shitty computer speakers at the office. This is headphones material all the way.

One of the tastiest instrumentals on the album is on the song “The Troglodyte Wins”, constructed by Nobody. Although at this point it is generally considered played out (in my humble opinion) to lace your beats with sped up vocal samples, Nobody pulls it off here nicely and the end result is pure dope. If it sounds dangerous to you to choose the backbone of a beat to be a female vocalist singing “Get uuuuup...get doooown...”, then you are not alone. But the way it’s laid out on this song with some catchy synth riffs and expertly mixed percussion, it becomes one of the freshest beats on the album. Other standout tracks on the production side include the psychedelic masterpiece “Secret Skin”, which features some rather spooky organ and guitar samples, as well as the Boom Bip hard-hitter “(Bloody Paw on the) Kill Floor”.

Roadkill Overcoat differs from Busdriver’s previous recordings in one key respect: the vocals themselves. While homeboy has always been known for an all around rapid fire, wild-style rhyme delivery, his ventures into the realm of actual song-singing have been mainly nonexistent. There are experiments at work in RKO in terms of complex vocal layering on most of the tracks, but perhaps most surprising are the moments when Busdriver actually whips out his singing voice. In the case of “Sun Showers”, the gamble pays off pleasingly, even beautifully. The beat itself is on some catchy, keyboard-heavy, synthetic-drums-type pop brilliance, but what is truly marvelous is Busdriver’s style of perfect crooning all over the track. His pitch and key are on point in this instance, even as he makes unorthodox tempo and cadence transitions throughout the course of the song. The result is, dare I say, soul-stirring...

More often than not, however, these experiments in vocal harmonics do not turn out so well. And if there is one major criticism to be made of RoadKill Overcoat as a whole, it would most likely fall under this category. While most of the rap verses themselves are spit in the characteristic machine gun style we have come to expect and enjoy from the ‘Driver, attempts at writing a decent hook for some of the songs fail badly. This is exemplified in the single from last year, “Kill Your Employer”, which is excellent in most respects, but the corny attempt at a bubblegum pop hook is hard to stomach. Maybe he’s trying to be ironic? I’m not sure, but trouble again rears its head between verses on the otherwise decent cut “Pompous Posies! Your Party’s No Fun”. Busdriver’s stab at rhythmically and harmonically mimicking the organ riff during the bridge is nails on a chalkboard.

In fact, despite all of the great things that can be said about RoadKill Overcoat, a general disclaimer is in order: most listeners will find that this album, taken as a whole, or even track-by-track, is very difficult to digest. On the one hand, the songs are poppy, even catchy. But on a deeper level, there is something unsettling about each composition in the collection. In some cases, this disquieting sensation is due to the odd vocal deliveries Busdriver constantly assaults your eardrums with. In other cases, the discomfort is up front in the messages contained in the lyrics. To top it all off, between the intricate beats and layered vocals, the sheer density of the tracks at large is enough to give one a funny feeling.

This is not to discredit the record as an artistic achievement in any way – much to the contrary. The fact that a rap record in the year 2007 can force us to examine our own ideas on what is good art (should it have to be instantly enjoyable?) speaks volumes to the undeniable merit of RoadKill Overcoat. And for most who are willing to make the commitment, these songs will grow on you; it just may take a few attentive listens the whole way through, like De La Soul’s supreme accomplishment in their 1993 opus Buhloone Mindstate. This album may well end up going down in the annals of underground hip hop as the musical equivalent of a literary Gravity’s Rainbow. This comparison works on a few levels because it is indeed hefty in size and scope, something of a chore to make it the whole way through, difficult as fuck to gain true understanding of no matter which way you analyze it, but ultimately well worth whatever time you end up investing in it. And, like Pynchon in his prime, Busdriver is skilled enough to pull off crazy detours and digressions...often into playful self-consciousness, in the middle of something else, without making you hate him for it.

It will be interesting to see who in the rap world can top this in terms of depth, complexity, and overall groundbreaking-ness after its release, if not Busdriver himself. What’s funny is it will probably be some kid we haven’t even heard of yet, someone in a couple years who emerges from the same Project Blowed crew within the LA underground, who’s on a street corner on this very Thursday night near Leimert eighteen-year-old who’s currently serving the shit out of somebody with some unfathomable styles and punch lines off the top of the head. Maybe he’ll be the hype man on the next Busdriver tour. But for now, all hail the King...

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. . . except for one thing. I absolutely LOVE the Kill Your Employer hook. The first time I heard it, it right cut into my soul and became a part of me. So fuck off, sir.