If hip-hop is party music, then Ceschi Ramos’s third solo outing, The One Man Band Broke Up, is music for the saddest party in recorded human history. Although my fiancée insists I possess the most depressing record collection in the world, I honestly cannot remember the last time I encountered an album as gruelingly and relentlessly bleak as this. Revolving around the suicide of a musician and titular one-man band named Julius, the record forgoes any kind of linear narrative. Instead, Ramos pours most of his energy into isolating the emotional realities that pushed the protagonist toward his end — loneliness, frustration, and ultimately disillusionment with not only the music industry but the act of creation itself — and he hammers these with an unremitting intensity.
Ramos is like a Krav Maga master with a mic; every utterance seems calculated to inflict maximum damage. Some of the songs contain nested allusions that only reveal themselves upon multiple listens. In one of the most prominent lyrics in the title track, Ramos proclaims, “The moral of the story is/ No one really gives a shit/ Don’t cry for the swatted flies/ They loved what they did.” A grim enough sentiment in its own right, but it takes on a whole new level of ugliness and misanthropy when you realize that, just a second ago, he said of the protagonist, ”Loving what you did/ Only got you/ So far through these years.” And that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Take a look at a few more of the more inspirational passages:
”All these animals/ With their paws in traps/ All the animals/ In this bar make me laugh/ It’s the way that their faces sink at half-mast/ It’s the way that our bodies stink”
”When all our flesh disintegrates/ We’ll perform for the worms”
”But he was only 45 when he died/ With no family left behind/ Just instruments and a mic/ And the story goes/ That he cried like a baby/ As he tied the noose waiting/ For someone to come and save him”
But while Ramos may be this year’s top contender for the “Artist Most in Need of a Hug” award, on a purely cursory listen, One Man Band comes off affably enough. The beats (provided by producer and labelmate DJ Scientist with some contributions from Ramos himself) are pure hipster-hop: plenty of strings, horns, and guitar, but with enough of a bass-drum to help the emcees keep time. Ramos’ machine-gun delivery is impressive, even invigorating at times, although his voice betrays an unfortunate and unmistakable similarity to former House of Pain front man Everlast. In true hipster-hop fashion, the album occasionally digresses into baroque rock territory. These forays, like “Lament for Captain Julius” and “For My Disappointing Hip Hop Heroes,” are a let-down. They often approach a solid hook or an interesting melody but either stop short or abruptly change direction before becoming fully realized.
The stylistic mish-mash detracts from the overall effect of the album, but the laser focus of the concept still holds it together as a coherent work, at times almost to a fault. I’ve listened to this front-to-back searching for some kernel of hope, some meager validation of the protagonist’s existence, but there’s just nothing there. The closest Julius ever comes to any kind of real human connection is in the song “No New York,” when an unnamed acquaintance repeats, “I tried to tell you backstage/ But the women got in the way/ And the drugs had already hit your brain.” What the speaker wanted to say — whether it was a warning or even some small token of affection or affirmation — is lost, forever unspoken.
I don’t know what the overall takeaway is supposed to be when the album’s worldview is clearly so hopeless and mercilessly bitter, but Ramos deserves credit for his unflinching depictions of humanity at absolute rock bottom. The One Man Band Broke Up isn’t an easy listen, nor a uniformly enjoyable one, but if you’ve got the stomach for it, it will take you places that few other artists dare to tread.