By Dan McQuade
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By Sound of the City
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It's already hard to remember the moment, but Asher Roth—the 23-year-old white rapper from the Philadelphia suburbs whose major-label debut, Asleep in the Bread Aisle, comes out this week—was once, briefly, the most interesting thing going in rap. If you don't believe me (and why would you?), look up June 2008's The Greenhouse Effect, which Roth and two early supporters, DJ Drama and Don Cannon, are still giving away for free at asherrothmusic.com. Better mixtapes came out last year, but none were so perversely, fetchingly terrestrial, not even Wale's Mixtape About Nothing: "It perturbs me when I leave work and see a whole bunch of trash on the side of the freeway." And so on.
Roth's boy-from-the-'burbs shtick came with a mouthy, complete-sentence cadence and an outsize fascination with upper-middle-class liberals, with whom he self-identified. He rapped about yogurt and Obama and ice hockey, eating fish and cutting class and watching Saved by the Bell. No Paul Barman he: Roth rhymed fluently over beats pilfered from everyone from Clipse to the Cool Kids; his "A Milli" remix, on which he confessed to not having anything like a million dollars, but being a pretty good dancer nonetheless, was better than those by vets Jadakiss and LL Cool J—even the one Lil Wayne did himself.
Roth started rapping at age 16, after getting cut from the baseball team at Pennsbury High, a public school a half-hour drive north of Philadelphia. He came to hip-hop late, after hearing "Hard Knock Life" in 1998, when he was in the seventh grade—the same school year that saw the release of The Slim Shady LP. Later, while at West Chester University, where he studied elementary ed, Roth sent a MySpace friend request to Scooter Braun, an Atlanta-based A&R man. Braun heard something he liked and pulled Roth out of school, moving him down to Georgia with three friends, "Entourage-style." On one particularly busy New York day, Braun had him rap in front of both Jay-Z, who passed on Def Jam's behalf, and Universal's Steve Rifkind, who—after staging an impromptu rap battle between Roth and a Universal intern—signed him to his SRC imprint.
And now, less than a year after Greenhouse, after a sustained dog whistle of hype and hysteria and agonized self-reflection that sounded awfully loud to readers of rap blogs and the Internet and probably a lot like nothing at all to the rest of humanity, comes Asleep in the Bread Aisle—on which Roth once again turns an arguably gimlet and almost certainly reverent eye toward the weird pieties of college culture: wingmen, video games, blunts, Captain Morgan, environmentalism, MILFs, Che Guevara, basketball shorts, Ford Tauruses, topless chicks, Miller Lite. Oren Yoel, a 25-year-old jazz pianist from USC whose devotion to "fruit and yoga" impressed Roth when the two first met, produced nine out of 12 tracks.
AITBA's campus tour takes place over what you might call a metaphorical—and, as on its first single "I Love College," quasi-actual—Weezer sample. Yoel, despite clearly knowing a thing or two about drum machines, mostly produces like the campus muso he recently was: rasta-capped and khaki-clad guitars, house-party handclap rhythms, mellow keyboards that nod toward the Doors as much as they do hip-hop's futuristic orthodoxy; these are post-Roots, post–Gnarls Barkley compositions that usually have not just a verse and chorus but a bridge, too. Roth raps in the exaggerated, vaguely accented white-nerd voice that goes back in pop music as far as Devo, at least, although in hip-hop, it's a style that will forever be associated with every burgeoning Caucasian rapper's bête blanc, Eminem. Whom—after a handful of songs about weed (the convenience-store-jocking "Blunt Cruisin' "), women (an entertainingly Allure-influenced, expectations-up-front pairing of "Be by Myself" and "She Don't Want a Man"), and war ("Sour Patch Kids," about "the evil that feeds off the so-called American dream")—Asher addresses directly on "As I Em."
Roth pegs the similarities, for which he's both thankful and a little bit burdened, as mostly a matter of "complexion and voice inflection," noting that, among other things, he's not nearly as crazy. "It's so different, the image/They don't get it," Roth rhymes at one point. "It's simple: I'm just a kid who wants to rap to make a living." Which is the most fascinating thing about Asher Roth—his exoticism in hip-hop has a lot less to do with race than with class, probably the real preoccupation he has in common with Eminem, who always had much more to say about being white trash than about being white. It's also why Roth is right to bristle at the comparison. Unlike Eminem—who grew up a screw-up and then dropped out—Roth's interest in rap's traditional rags-to-riches narrative, with all the struggle for respect that narrative implies, is pretty much zero. As he put it to me in a recent phone interview, "I just want to tour. I want to be able to live comfortably."
The real revelation? That it turned out to be easier for Asher Roth to become a successful rapper than an elementary school teacher. On the rapper's slow-jamming daddy homage "His Dream," Roth explicitly equates his father's middle-management struggles with his own burgeoning rap career: "His dream is my dream/My dream is his dream." In other words, AITBA is, in the end, disappointingly a coming-of-age record—a rap-rich tradition that includes Slick Rick, KRS-One, Nas, and Roth demons Eminem and Jay-Z, none of whom ever ventured the Bob Marleyian couplet, "Money doesn't mean a damn thing to me/I just want to be, I want to be free."
For someone so uncommonly good at describing a whole milieu—white Wu-Tang–loving kids at leisure, we'll call it—that's rarely appeared in rap before, Roth spends very little time actually doing so. He talks a lot about getting laid—to fearsome, fast-rapping effect on "Lion's Roar," with Busta Rhymes—and even more about triumphing over adversity, although seemingly the whole point of "I Love College," the iTunes-storming dorm-room anthem that will ensure AITBA's place in history, is that there isn't much of it in his life. "Bad Day" is about a particularly rough, iPodless airline trip. And "Fallin' "—a song that, before Roth borrowed it from the Judgment Night soundtrack, was about how your personality becomes an unwanted commodity right around the moment you lose touch with reality—is, on AITBA, textbook, grade-by-grade autobiography. To which De La Soul still might say: You played yourself.