By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
If you believe what Hot 97's chirping in your ear, rap's a bulky monolith. Dammit, it's just so hard to be anything other than a big pimpin' hot boy these days that to try something different is, like, whoa! In the post-Rawkus era, even independence isn't alternative; it's just a budget version of the real thing.
Some new artists, though, to paraphrase a more famous sonic transgressor, just don't give a fuck. Lyrically enigmatic, sonically eclectic, stylistically experimental, their music embodies nearly everything the hip-hop mainstream isn'tnot a polar opposite, but rather an art birthed to fill in spaces left open by standard-bearers.
I'll take seven MCs/Put 'em in a line/Shoot 'em and sell they clothes to get my wisdom teeth pulled. Deep Puddle Dynamics, "Rainmen," on Anticon Presents: Music for the Advancement of Hip-Hop (Anticon)
They don't even waste an inordinate amount of time lambasting their jiggy peers (though, this being underground hip-hop, vestigial "independent as fuck" sentiments do remain). Rather than emphasize their structural differences, which are of course very present, they expand the language of the art, often rendering it in ways that would leave parochialists scratching their heads. Rapping about foreign film. Rapping about food. Rapping about sports. (And I don't mean "Basketball" here. Buck 65 has a three-track retelling of a mythical baseball game interspersed throughout his album Vertex [Four Ways to Rock], pretty much apropos of nothing.) Rapping about animals. Rapping as animals. (Don't believe that last one? Try "Farmer's Market of the Beast" from last year's Beneath the Surface compilation [Celestial], on which a group of MCs take on the roles of an iguana, a snake, a walrus, a lion, a goat, and a lab chimp. No hamster style, though.)
There's no ersatz authenticity here. Old notions of the "real" have been discarded as easily as those ABAB flows we've gotten used to. This next generation of artistsSlug, Dose One, Buck 65, MC Paul Barman, Aesop Rock, Radio Inactive, Sixtoo, Awol Oneall take hip-hop and mold it unconventionally. Representing environs as unlikely as Halifax and suburban New Jersey and Cincinnati and northern Minnesota, these outsiders dabble in styles with all the quirkiness befitting their assorted backgrounds.
I am the only one like me/Subtitled'therefore' symbolI am no better than anyone for it though. Dose One, "Questions Over Coffee," Circles (Mush/Dirty Loop)
Originality without arrogance. Quite refreshingly, these MCs seem to care little for conceit, instead using their time on wax to hash out their personal problemslyrics (and music) qua therapy. Circles, Dose One's collaboration with producer Boom Bip, is a collection of 29 poems in which the rapper takes himself on a journey of self-analysis. In "The Bird Catcher," he laments people's lack of humanity, implicitly indicting himself in the cycle: "I will write forever and wonder why some men change lives/My ears go back and mouth runs dry at how few truly make friends amongst themselves/Ship in a bottle/It's frightening, in all my daily routines, how few I've truly shared a moment with another/Boy in a bubble."
Or perhaps Buck 65 strikes closest to the truth, admitting, "I like human contact but I don't like to play-fight," instead preferring quiet time "in the bed, naked, watching movies on the VCR." But isolation itself can be as painful as false communitas. Either way, anxiety must run in this crew. Fellow Anticon Records affiliate Slug brings the trauma on "Want," from the Ropeladder 12 compilation (Mush/Dirty Loop)"I felt a lot of love from these people that don't know me/Now I never go home 'cause I hate being lonely"finding the fans' adoration not enough to sustain him through crises.
But one listen to "Nothing but Sunshine," Slug's contribution to Anticon Presents, should explain why. Reminiscent of "Last Good Sleep," El-P's confessional (from Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus) about overhearing his stepfather abuse his mother, it's a startlingly revealing tale of childhood confusion, rooted in the death of Slug's parents, one after the next, when he was almost too young to notice: "When my mother died, I had to take it in stride/There ain't no room for pride in watching your father cry/Dad made it until maybe a year later/When they found his suicide inside of a grain elevator/Got over it/I had no other offers or options." Parts of the track are clear hyperbole (one hopes), as he acts out murdering cattle while crooning a refrain from "My Girl," but the pain remains the same. Slug's depth of candor is atypical for any genre, but particularly so in a hip-hop nation that values posturing over conceding.
MC Paul Barman, to his credit, engages in a bit of both of these, each one threatening to undermine the sincerity of the other at any moment. He writes "I'm Fricking Awesome" from a female perspective, but then just as he's on the verge of empowering her, she visits the Met, spies Barman himself (dirty dog!) working the donation stand, and rushes him off to the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing to engage in a bit of headbanger boogiean odd degree of vanity, even among rap's proud braggadocio addicts. Yet Barman's too insecure to truly be self-aggrandizing; the remainder of the album is practically a paean to his dubious sexual prowess. He's hung like a birthmark, his girl runs off with Ione Skye, his condom turns out to be Hanukkah gelt, he's outed as gay (but isn't): a veritable cornucopia of sexual dysfunction, all on display like a peep show of the libido.