“What’s up with the state of hip-hop? Where exactly is hip-hop going? Did hip-hop have breakfast this morning? Does hip-hop really have the fucking time to pull off that outfit? Who is hip-hop dating? What does hip-hop check in the gender box?”
If I may postpone deep, critical analysis here for a bit (don’t worry, I’ll get there), my initial gut feeling after my first listen of Busdriver’s eighth full-length solo record, Perfect Hair, was that there’s something unexplainably and indefensibly cloying about music that explicitly comments on itself and its present position within an ever-shifting landscape, especially post-conceptual turn. Processing lines like that snippet from “Bliss Point,” quoted above, feels a bit like drinking my own spit after it has been sitting in a Petri dish for 12 years. Why this particular detail about Perfect Hair splits my ends as a long-time fan of Busdriver and other hyper literate/literary “avantcore” hip-hop artists is both a matter of my own personal trajectory and evidence of my own experimentalist bias toward subversion and abstraction as inquisitive modalities. Yet wrestling with this specific hangup of mine regarding its perceived pithiness has revealed that Perfect Hair is much denser and much more nuanced in its deconstruction of hip-hop (and pretty much everything else) than I originally realized. Once its own tightly-wound complexities are unraveled, however, an unforeseen space emerges between thorny follicles; for better or worse, sifting through Perfect Hair’s knots is a process of straightening out clumps perhaps best kept tangled up in their own mangled metaphors.
Putting my own initial aversion aside, let’s talk about aesthetics. Sonically, Perfect Hair is a well-greased machine; impressive and innovative in its design, yet efficient and sleek in its execution. Busdriver’s ad libs (“Driver!” “Oh shoot!”) are set close and physically resonates much more warmly and intimately than most hip-hop vocal tracks (purposefully whisper close rather than intensely standoffish). Production-wise, Perfect Hair is lush, detailed, and heavily populated, and although not as varied as cuts from Yeezus or good kid m.A.A.d city, its song arrangements are far from formulaic. Opener “Retirement Ode” ebbs and flows with Driver’s sporadic yet controlled cadence, beats and synth swells cutting in and out like well-timed breaths; when Driver finishes his lyrical fire poi, instead of riding out a beat loop, he carves out space for a buoyant shock-absorbing comedown that recalls El-P’s deft use of electrical engineering throughout Cancer 4 Cure’s agitated soundscapes. Excellent “When the Tooth Lined Horizon Blinks (feat. Open Mike Eagle)” boasts skittering snares and voluptuous synth blurts that rival Clams Casino’s angelic cloud rap and Traxman’s etheric footwork. “Upsweep,” a kind of postmodern hip-hop ballad exudes TV on the Radio vibes in its eclecticism, demonstrating that Busdriver has some serious chops and a versatile arsenal.
Lyrically is where Perfect Hair distracts more than it challenges. While Busdriver’s one-liners in isolation make most rap lyrics sound like politically correct nursery rhymes, they don’t often conjure visuals beyond their literal scopes: “You’d rather lick the red gills of pop art/ And then your cement-filled epoch marks/ The withering tendrils from my wrought heart/ Reach for a Benadryl like it was a lost ark” (“Ego Death”); “I’m so hungry man, I could eat the rich” (“Eat the Rich”); “Nap in the serpent’s lair/ You got that perfect hair/ From a German heir” (“King Cookie Faced (For Her)”). And while Busdriver’s flow is as fervent and as blissfully unorthodox as ever, cameos by Aesop Rock and Danny Brown on “Ego Death” eclipse Driver’s short-winded poetic jests, evincing that Perfect Hair (its excellence in studio mastery aside) could have been a much more mold-breaking album had Busdriver focused on penning devastating lines rather than slinging überclever commentary on art and society as flimsy constructs.
I could address how this record confronts ideas of perfection, but it isn’t necessary. Busdriver delves into a plethora complex issues that have arisen in a post-internet, hip-hop-dominated environment by asking evaluative questions himself, quite directly. But although he rightfully avoids answers altogether, he often chokes before inciting further provocation. What is underground hip-hop’s state these days? (Is underground hip-hop even underground anymore?) Where is it going? (Can we even think about aesthetics linearly anymore?) What does or should hip-hop look like? (With underground hip-hop’s history of breaking down and subverting mainstream iconography, what kinds of images still resonate with hip-hop?) What new kinds of gender issues is it faced with? (What does making an album featuring exclusively men say about who your audience is or should be?) Driver has always taken a scalpel to these messy issues, and his music has always been ruthlessly imaginative, yet Perfect Hair isn’t quite as impressive in a decade that has heard My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Black Up, good kid m.A.A.d city, Cancer 4 Cure, Rap Music, and Yeezus.
Impossible comparisons aside however, as I have reflected on its problems, Perfect Hair has grown on me as an album. And as I am left with a myriad of inquisitions and interrogations of my own, my lingering thought about Perfect Hair is that it’s perhaps a bit too perfectly parsed out. With Perfect Hair, Busdriver has once again crafted a fantastically immersive listening experience (arguably Busdriver’s finest work yet), only blunted by how profoundly it telegraphs its own ambitions and intentions, more than meeting my expectations as a piece of confrontational sound art, yet leaving its targeted structures a bit too comfortably in tact.