If I’d chosen a member of Anti-Pop Consortium to get a prominent solo career, it wouldn’t’ve been Beans. I was always a High Priest partisan, since his morose, deadpan hum and lyrical Afrofuturism fit so well into my personal constellation of science-spiritual desolation. Back when the band broke up nearly a decade ago (they’ve since reunited), Beans seemed a little too close to the self-congratulatory bombast of the rap mainstream; he occasionally rapped, for instance, about what he was wearing and/or drinking. That his albums and EPs have since tended to feature pictures of Himself tarted up Gucci-esque has only helped confirm this, to the point that I haven’t turned to them for sustenance, even as the bones of experimental hip-hop lay stripped of its flesh and bleached white by harsh desert sands.
End It All doesn’t reveal some new profundity to Beans’ formula; it just happens to be the album that came out when I was finally smart enough to get exactly how weird he always was. It’s a weirdness more subtle and deep — and, if you can tap into it, more unnerving — than you get from the likes of El-P or dälek or Buck 65 or even (Dare I say it? Dare, dare!) Ramm-Ell-Zee. Because while those guys (and others in the general orbit of experimental hip-hop) may or may not be able to control their own level of weirdness, they’re all pretty fully committed to it. And while it hasn’t always been there, they now have… well, like I said, an orbit, a scene, a subgenre to call their own, one that is clearly its own kind of comfort.
End It All has finally helped me realize that Beans exists outside of any such comfortable niche. I propose that, while the whole Gucci Sunglasses side of Beans can make him seem like a Preening Hipster Douchebag, it’s actually an attempt to mitigate a weirdness more profound and intense than I, for one, may be quite comfortable looking straight in the eyes. Under inspection, the most conventional aspects of Beans’ music and persona start looking either (a) semi-satirical or (b) like an awkward facade, à la The Pod People, to convince the world that he’s actually human. As evidence, I would offer the simultaneous presence in his rhymes of an array of boilerplate hip-hop braggadocio, delivered with convincing swagger, and a stream of mind-bending word-equations that tend to pass beneath the radar if you’re not paying pretty good attention. While you’re still comfortably basking in the familiar meta-hype of “Beans you brilliant with the vocal/ Got the world by the throat when the crowd goes loco,” he sneaks under your radar with
“Agony inflicted when I puncture the romance of mediocrity/ The meat in the middle/ Like a star scarred/ Attempt to star [?] Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard/ Self-murder delusional/ Lily-white atrocities crumbling in slow motion.”
which you’ll notice starts out battle-hard before taking a metaphorical detour through Old Hollywood, veering wildly off-beat and eventually scrapping rhyme altogether (from “Glass Coffins”). In the old days, I tended to hear the declarative firmament and ignore the long passages where Beans kind of wanders off into the jungle of his own mind, which, if you follow him quickly, turns into some Southeast Asian poisonous-snake hell with a well-stocked library. These wanders can be particularly easy to overlook because they’re delivered with exactly the same grim confidence as the catchphrases, as if your teenage Natural History Museum docent turned a corner and started describing the encased remains of a chupacabra in unwavering tones of chipper friendliness.
The production perfectly matches this hazardously porous sense of normality. Sometimes it actually makes it kind of obvious, as when Nobody drops groovy electro bass and calypso dings under Beans’ melodicized opinion that his “deathsweater” looks “so damn sexy,” adding up to what you’d hear on the Hot 97 franchise on Pluto. Tobacco takes the same route on “Glass Coffins,” coloring in the lines of melodic verse-chorus hip-pop with a spectrum of distortion and arpeggios that keeps you just on the ‘slightly too robotic’ side of comfortable. Tracks that are both weird and dope come from Son Lux, who gives “Blue Movie” a cinematic heft in the whole Blade Runner retro-future vein, and especially from In Flagranti and Tunde Adibimpe, who come together on “Mellow You Out” to give us something only slightly more scary than pretty. Adibimpe’s stentorian claim that he’s “developed a method to mellow you out” hits with the same understated menace as Dizzee Rascal did eight years ago (eight years, what the fuck?) when he said he’d “make you relax, sit down, unwind.”
Some of the tracks are stellar but don’t seem quite appropriate, as when Interpol’s Sam Fog delivers the record’s creepiest cut by way of the ghostly string moans and walking-dead plod of “Electric Bitch.” In the hands of a more conventionally dark/abstract MC, this could have ended up doing RZA better than RZA has lately, but Beans kind of mauls it. That’s the main weakness of the record — Beans has basically one flow, unrelenting and essentially inhuman in a way that’s more than a cheap joke about weirdness. If you look at the weirdest lines, they’re poetic flirting with profound, and sometimes with clear non-trivial Content. But Beans seems only vaguely aware of the variations from one page of his rhyme book to the next. If we could strip away all meaning — if, for instance, Beans were suddenly rapping in Hindi — he would be easily mistaken for a pure punchline/battle rapper, albeit one with a pretty wooden personality.
This invariable robotic flow is both a shortcoming (for obvious reasons) and kind of the whole thing Beans does, because it demands the question: Does he know he’s weird? There’s a comparison to be made with Kool Keith, because both MCs are juggling a deep nerdy nuttiness with some affinity for the side of hip-hop full of jocky swagger. Keith has given a lot of evidence that, even as he raps about rat-burgers and doo-doo, he’s fully convinced he’s on the road to becoming LL Cool J — that is, he’s a nerd who truly believes he’s a jock. At first, it seems easy to read Beans as a New York Artillectual fully aware of exactly what elements he’s playing with — a nerd who’s fucking with the jocks by twisting their style to his own ends. What’s most fascinating about him, though, is that he never winks, never signals the split between his weirdness and his braggadocio, never gives us any clear evidence that one is more real than the other. But they never quite come to terms, either, never find common ground in the way that they do with, say, El-P. Instead, End It All can seem like the product of a schizophrenic in the archaic sense, two severed halves of an amygdala that happen to reside in the same body. It doesn’t quite translate into a great record, but the seed at the center is something strange enough it deserves a long, serious look.
Or, anyway, I sure hope it does — otherwise I just wasted three hours trying to figure the damn thing out.