By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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MC Paul Barman, a short, Jewish, bespectacled Ivy League alumnus with dark, curly hair peeking out from beneath the hood of his Carhartt jacket, has officially ended a nearly-decade-long hiatus from vying for the role of Next Great White Rapper. I want to meet at his downtown apartment, where he lives with his wife and two young sons, to discuss this resurgence, but he suggests MOMA's outdoor sculpture garden instead, where the sun and the temperature are both rapidly dropping. It's never easy to follow exactly what Barman is saying, but it's even more difficult when it's freezing and the subject is his new, self-released album, Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud, for which the phrase "passion project" is an egregious understatement.
"I've been trying to come up with the superset title for palindromes, Morse code, and double-crostic shenanigans," he says, describing some of the complicated linguistic devices he employs therein. (Understanding these aspects of the record requires watching his YouTube videos.) "They're not as important as dropping a gem or touching an emotion, but they help in terms of making history."
Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud is making history? "It's unquestionably hip-hop record of the year—I think it's a contender for best record of the aughts," he continues. (It came out in late November, barely meeting that deadline.) "Lyrically, it's out of control. It cements a lot of unfinished business."
He's referring, for starters, to the fact that many people think he can't rap. Pitchfork gave 2002's Paullelujah!, his only previous full-length, a 2.0. Out of 10. (Verdict: "Completely fucking useless.") He has made at least one "Worst White Rappers of All Time" list; what's worse, he is often lumped in with the nerdcore crowd. His voice can be shrill; his consistent failure (purposeful or not) to march in lockstep with the beat disorienting; and his tendency to shove five syllables where one belongs potentially grating.
And yet the guy remains part of the conversation, if only because he's got balls. Barman is unwilling to modify his approach to hip-hop, neither in his subject matter nor in his rapping style, both being exactly what you'd expect from a Brown University art major who split his time growing up between his mom's place in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and his dad's apartment on 23rd Street in Manhattan. His irrepressibly enthusiastic rhymes aim to respect both his audience's capacity for deep thought and its perhaps paradoxical love of ribald potty humor. "My style is substance, period," he contends.
And so Thought Balloon begins with a response to his critics ("The articulate answer to my grammar is 'Damn!'/So check yourself, testicular cancer exam"), followed by songs about owl regurgitation, circumcision (he's against it), and AIDS, the latter sampling an interview he did with field researcher Dr. Joyce Wallace for this newspaper. (Since Paullelujah!, Barman's been doing some freelance writing and teaching a hip-hop class to high school kids at the Bank Street College of Education, not to mention getting married and siring his progeny.) Something like a social-studies lesson performed by an improv comedy troupe, the album's energy is infectious. Highlights include "The Moon"—the single rappity-rap song, featuring Masta Ace, Del tha Funky Homosapien, and C-Rayz Walz—and "It Can All Be Taken Away," a creeping ballad featuring art-filmmaker Michel Gondry on optigan and piano. Gondry, who gave Barman a small part in his 2008 flick Be Kind Rewind, also directed the track's video, which features a legless, then armless, then torso-less man descending a flight of stairs: "Tender clutch/Sense of touch/Smell, taste, sight, hearing," Barman sings. "When you lose a leg/It's not like you lost an earring."
Released on his own Househusband Records, the work is a relatively mature update of the rapper's first two discs—Paullelujah! was preceded by the 2000 EP It's Very Stimulating, both released on relative indies themselves. Unlike Thought Balloon, neither of those albums included many stanzas not referencing the vagina, though they inspired a wave of national interest mostly due to the candy-coated production of Prince Paul. In 1998, fresh out of Brown, Barman sent Paul a tape and a 7-inch record, which the former De La Soul technician rescued from his slush pile. "I thought the style was cool because he wasn't trying to sound like anybody," the producer says now. "He was really all over the place, but he always fell back onto the beat." Plus, in the pre-Eminem era, a white rapper sounded like a delicious novelty: "I thought, 'This would be crazy!' "
The fledgling MC soon found himself in Paul's home recording studio, smelling funny (Paul: "I said, 'When you come back next time, wear deodorant' ") and lacking confidence. But the beat-maker convinced his new charge to stay true to his unorthodox vision, and they recorded It's Very Stimulating in two days. The crass spirit of stand-out track "MTV Get Off the Air, Part 2" ("I'll still be rhymin' when I'm in your hymen") permeated Paullelujah! as well, and the unlikely MC inexplicably fell in with hip-hop's cool crowd, which backs him still. In addition to new Prince Paul contributions, Thought Balloon boasts verses and production from MF Doom, and a beat by ?uestlove. The Roots drummer was a huge early fan; they met at the Pink Tea Cup. "He said to the beautiful woman across from him, 'This is like meeting Michael Jackson,' " Barman remembers. ?uest introduced him to Gondry, who is working with the rapper in a duo called BEER on what will be a full, conceptual album due this year. "He wanted to create a new kind of music," Barman says. "I was kind of dubious about that."
In the meantime, the bulk of Thought Balloon's beats and engineering comes from Memory Man, a producer based in Austin, Texas. "I definitely had a knee-jerk reaction when I first heard him back in 2000," he says of Barman. "I had to listen a few times just to see what Prince Paul saw in this guy. But once I got it, I got it." The pair collaborated over phone and e-mail for two years, attempting to fuse jazz and classical elements with the rapper's aforementioned lyrical tricks. (The album also contains songs for tykes, a Creedence Clearwater Revival interpolation, and beatboxing.) Still, the music is not particularly experimental or attention-demanding; the idea is for Barman's flow to dominate. "There's an inherent humor in his rhyming that is best served when the beat is the straight man," Memory Man says. "When it gets too goofy, then it's all just too goofy."
Prince Paul agrees, to a point: "I don't really think he's goofy," he says of Barman. "I think he's brilliant."
"I've always subscribed to the notion that there's a tradition of innovation in hip-hop," Barman himself adds. The rapper clearly believes he's ahead of his time; he's closer to it right now than he's ever been.