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Busdriver - Fear of a Black Tangent

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Artist: Busdriver

Album: Fear of a Black Tangent

Label: Mush

Review date: Apr. 15, 2005

Busdriver makes my job too easy. Among the lyrics on his newest record (and there are a lot of lyrics), he takes it upon himself to spell out most of what would make up the content of your standard record review. He recounts his undie hip-hop pedigree – “I got my start doing songs with CVE but now you’re like ‘Chillin’ Villain who?’ ‘Project what?’” (the answers there would be “Empire” and “Blowed,” respectively), outlines his basic rhetorical approach – “My speech is littered with double-entendres and sharp sarcasm,” “I spend less time alienating my audience than trying to solicit sales”, offers some context in a gloss of his popular reception to date – “I’m trying to make hits, but I keep hitting pop flies / I don’t eat out anymore I thaw out chicken pot pies / But I used to be on the list of the top five fresh hip-hop guys”, and even explains the title reference in case you missed it – “it’s a fear of a black tangent, idiot: a Public Enemy spoof.

One thing he neglects to mention – which distinguishes him from stereotypical chest-thumping MCz – is the mad rhyming skills he happens to possess. That’s ‘mad’ in most senses of the word, to be sure. Of course, if you were listening to the record they hardly need to be pointed out – his nervous flashiness, death-defying pace, encyclopedic arsenal of allusions, and neck-swerving multi-syllabic slant-rhymes are pretty hard to miss, and by the time you’ve got your head around those, you already missed him worming his endearingly neurotic way into your heart. See, Bus’s got his braggadocio too, but it takes the form of self-deprecation, so snarky it puppy-dog-dares you into misapprehension.

Fear drips with sarcasm, and while it’s gentle enough that we’re generally encouraged to laugh along, it’s also bitter enough to give pause. How do we take what seems to be the central gripe here – that Busdriver isn’t enjoying the super-stardom he so plainly deserves? Among a volley of smartin’ side-swipes at ‘the business,’ ‘the hype machine,’ whatever, sometimes he makes the case directly: “Why did I choose to do weird shit? I steered my career off a cliff in a flaming stunt car.” I mean, I feel for the guy; not being a rich and famous pop star sure is rough and all. On the other hand, who’s he kidding, he could have had a pop career? And if yeah, who’s stopping him? (And who does he see as his competition, exactly? “Reheated Pop!” targets posthumous megastar marketing; like he should be so lucky?)

Admittedly, one can read Bus’ defensive/confrontational stance against the vaguely-delimited “industry” as a kind of willfully absurdist provocation. Harder to parse are the album’s racial politics, which permeate it from the title on down (Mush, whose records all come with handy classifications, tag it “Anti-American made coon talk”), but never congeal into a recognizable political position. The title, it might be noted, can be interpreted in a number of ways (tenably, the fear is Bus’ own of remaining tangential; the blackness is symptomatic?) – but perhaps shouldn’t.

Lest this come off as a downer, I’d better mention the consistently inventive and enjoyable production, which is as varied as you could want while generally remaining, in a loose sense, pop. From the stately Baroque organ opening, the swirling harpsichords of Omid’s “Reheated Pop!,” and Paris Zax’s radio-ready acoustifunk “Unemployed Black Astronaut” to Danger Mouse’s oddly Hellenic “Cool Band Buzz,” the tin-horn softshoe of Daedelus’ “Befriend the Friendless Friendster,” and Thavius Beck’s double-time “Happiness (‘s Unit of Measurement)” – which finds Joan Baez getting the chipmunk treatment – it’s frankly impossible to pick a standout. Most of it sounds surprisingly fresh, and it’s all upbeat and melodic enough to temper the ambiguous acidity of Busdriver’s lyrical (mal)content and make this some of the most likable “weird hip-hop” around.

By K. Ross Hoffman

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