Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Busdriver - Thumbs Review

Somehow, despite how grand Hip-Hop has been in the post-2010 Internet world, weathered artists have found a place amongst the bunch. It seems older artists, by slightly altering their style (see Run The Jewels), can amass a new-found following as long as their music is up to par. Busdriver’s Perfect Hair was that album, one that allowed newcomers a taste of his eclectic music without brandishing the standoffish aesthetic of early 2000’s Abstract Hip-Hop. What’s helped Driver the most though is his legion of followers, who’ve turned into respected artists themselves, continuing and evolutionizing Art Rap, holding him atop a pedestal. From Open Mike Eagle to Milo to honorary Hellfyre Club member Hemlock Ernst (otherwise known as Sam Herring, lead singer of Future Islands), Busdriver has maintained relevance thanks to his own legacy that others have championed. Much like his Hellfrye Club brethren Farquhar has followed up his 2014 release not with silence, but another album a year later, breathing new life in an old career. Thumbs isn’t revolutionizing, or as good as Perfect Hair, but it is filled with Driver’s zaniness with a politically-charged edge, borrowing from his grasshopper Milo in many ways.

In fact, while he only appears once on this album, Milo’s presence is undeniably felt. From pushing release after release, to popularizing the connectivity of humor and political strife, to updating the beats for a synthetically modern age, Milo has almost exposed as much influence to his predecessor than he inadvertently did to him. The opener wastes no time providing these comparisons, as ‘Hottentot Superclust’ is rife with racial injustice over Driver’s radicalized quips. It’s alarming, and therefore successful, seeing these otherwise goofy lyricists spitting about real, pungent problems. From police brutality to slave-equated issues in the music industry, Thumbs, in no part similar in style or substance, maintains the same concepts as To Pimp A Butterfly, further intensifying the growing importance Black Lives Matter has on Hip-Hop, from the ground down under to the thrones on top. Nowhere is this shocking change more apparent than on the second half of ‘Ministry Of The Torture Couch.’ Early on, as the nonsensical titles indicates, things are decidedly lighter, as per Driver style. Hemlock Ernst somehow tops his verse on Milo’s So The Flies Don’t Come too, but it isn’t until Farquhar flips the script, bluntly hollering “fuck a cop, fuck a cop, he’s ready to drop a cop.” It’s polarizing and compliments Driver’s oncoming dizzying verse brilliantly.

Unfortunately about half the album doesn’t hold as much intrigue, returning to the more traditional forms of allurement Busdriver has maintained throughout his career. Whenever a ‘Black Labor’ arises, with its concise focus on a singular topic, there’s a 'Great Spooks Of Enormous Strength’ that seems undefinable and veering. Even ‘Surrounded By Millionaires,’ my most anticipated track here featuring the phenomenal Daveed Diggs, is a bit of a letdown, bearing strong similarities to ‘Eat Rich’ off Perfect Hair. It’s too sporadic to make a concise point, relying on a flurry of sounds that doesn’t fit Diggs’ minimalist style, despite his stellar flow. The album also gets noticeably weird to close as well, with a string of tracks that take sonic leaps leading to some awkward moments. From a solo Del The Funkee Homosapian track that would kill as a standalone but sounds perplexing stuck together here (‘Del’s Couch’), to a slow-burner where Driver struggles to force a flow (’Shadows And Victories’), to a presumably live mishmash of noise (‘NY 03 LIVE’), Thumbs only gains its composure again once its finale (‘Species Of Property’) hits on all cylinders discussing the confines of black culture. 

As for the sonic template Busdriver works with here, things seem to take each extreme Perfect Hair has and flaunts it. Half the album is melodic, while the other half pushes blistering boundaries. The two most contemporary and plain faced here, ‘MUCH’ and ‘Worlds To Run,’ are in turn the two best, surprising given Busdriver’s discography but not surprising given Perfect Hair’s best tracks, ‘Upsweep’ and ‘King Cookie Faced.’ ‘MUCH,’ especially when viewing the music video along with it, has most normal Busdriver song written all over it, and that’s not a knock. It works in its simplicity, with a small, catchy chorus and some easily drifting verses to compliment, good vibes conscious emcees like Shad and Blu may have a new brother to welcome. But really ‘Worlds To Run’ stands as the centerpiece of Thumbs, both conceptually and sonically. For all the electronic chaos surrounding it, ‘Worlds To Run’ stands in awe thanks to its organic instrumentation. A withered Milo glides over the building sounds, providing his prototypical personal touches, before 2015’s all-around darling singer Anderson .Paak croons his way to another delectable chorus. Throw in an absolutely gorgeous trumpet sendoff and you got a bonafide standout. On the more energetic end, while they don’t all land, the biggest risk, ‘Hyperbolic 2,’ definitely does. The purposefully obnoxious beat and voice bears strong resemblance to Danny Brown, bouncing on the janky synths with an in-your-face personality shift.

If there’s one thing Thumbs showcases it’s that Driver has versatility. In the early days of Abstract Hip-Hop many conflated their perceived oddball nature with being versatile, when really it isn’t until one dons multiple faces to earn that title. With Perfect Hair’s streamlined shift and Thumbs’ extremist view on both sides of the coin, Busdriver has earned the title, extending his career thanks to the absence of stubbornness that’ve plagued earlier Abstract emcees. There’s something for everyone here; the obsessive eccentricity will attract his older fans, while the trimmed and refined efforts will lure listeners who indulge in more simple pleasures. It’s spotty at times and disappointedly loses focus in the second half with a reliance on potential liability’s, driving a critical darling away in the form of a politically-charged climate. Both Milo and Busdriver, the two spearheads of this new political underground, have shown flashes of brilliance that get downplayed by their strong attachment to staying weird. Thankfully for Regan Farquhar, he’s really good at being weird.

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