Spark Master Tape’s second and most recent project, The #SWOUP Serengeti, has more than one thing going for it. Over the course of 16 tracks, The #SWOUP Serengeti caroms from one great beat to the next: there is the game show “think music” and melancholic atmospherics of “Half of Nepal;” the bone-rattling, propulsive bass of “Piñata;” the jazzy summertime lilt of “Mutual Fund;” the drunken big-top lurch of “Coke & Coco Pops;” and a progression of smoky private eye saxophone licks, 8-bit bleeps, and cinematic strings on the multi-part title track. The mixtape often features surprising sonic turns and shifting structures, flows nicely from track to track, and has a frenzied, unhinged air due to the sounds of gunshots, sirens, air horns, and madhouse laughter peppered throughout. It all results in a weird, soupy morass that still hangs together as a whole. Simply put: The #SWOUP Serengeti is, along with Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, one of the best and most consistently produced mixtapes of the year.
But there is a lot about him, and it, that is unclear. I’ve decided to write this review somewhat in reverse — i.e., critical judgment first, context second — because the context is, for lack of a better term, something of a tar baby: the more you engage with it, the harder it is to extricate yourself.
Spark Master Tape is a deliberately anonymous rapper from parts unknown. His voice is synthetically down-pitched to a woozy drip, redolent of Flying Lotus’s alter-ego Captain Murphy. He released his first free mixtape, Syrup Splash, at the end of 2012, and in the one and only interview he’s given (with Passion of the Weiss), he offers quotes like “Spark is from the Deep Blue Sea, the part right before Samuel L. Jackson gets murked by that shark” in lieu of actual biography. Even weirder, The #SWOUP Serengeti is apparently produced by someone named Paper Platoon and hosted by someone else named DJ Charlie Chicken Soup. (The actual existence of someone named DJ Charlie Chicken Soup seems doubtful, and Paper Platoon and Spark Master Tape are likely the same person.)
But the questions don’t stop there. What, for instance, does The #SWOUP Serengeti mean? Hashtag excepted, I couldn’t say. A Google search for SWOUP is unyielding. Perhaps it is an acronym for something, or maybe it is simply an alternate spelling of SOUP. (The act of cooking and eating soup is a recurring theme in Spark’s music.) And what is the derivation of Spark Master Tape’s name itself? There’s a short track on The #SWOUP Serengeti called “Soup Cartridge Assembly,” which, at first blush, seems to sample an old instructional video for something called a “Spark Master Tape Audible (Portable?) Soup Cartridge.” But these instructions are filled with surreal details — e.g., “please note that some of the packaging includes parts small enough to be a choking hazard to anybody under the age of 26,” and “never ever, under any circumstances, have more than one Spark Master Tape unit operating within a 500 mile radius” — that suggest it was recorded specifically for this mixtape. Were the names Spark Master Tape and The #SWOUP Serengeti chosen via some random Oulipian procedure? For search engine optimization?
Spark Master Tape’s lyrics alternate between absurdity and rap cliché. On the track “Leave My Crib,” he groans as though he’s just rolled out of bed, then slurs: “I don’t even leave my crib/ Unless I got my gun with me.” And later: “My team be tokin’ that Justin Bieber/ Sipping that potent, spitting that ether/ Rolling that dope shit, smoking with divas/ In a wife-beater.” On the short, bouncy song “Tina Tuna,” Spark raps “I met a girl named Tina, pussy smelled like tuna” and other lines of equal cleverness. But is this just dumb, or is it purposefully dumb for giggles? Meanwhile, the penultimate track, “Spokken Moonshine,” seems to be a pastiche of the “fallen soldiers” tribute track. Spark raps at the beginning: “In my hood we alone now/ Half my people under stones or in the stone house;” and at the end, as he’s reaching out to departed friends: “I’m on my phone, most names I can’t call but I try though/ Voicemail of a phantom but no motherfucking dial tone.” It’s serious stuff, but so much of Spark Master Tape is off that it’s hard to take it completely seriously.
Plus, it seems like Spark Master Tape’s primary intention is to play. His hilariously bizarre music videos — with their batty art house montage aesthetic — seem to bear out that assertion. The creative inspiration behind his music is likely conceptual rather than emotional. For example, the production on these tracks blurs the line between sampled and original material in a way that feels downright academic: “Mutual Fund” features a long, slowed-down sample of Busta Rhymes from “Dangerous” as though it’s a guest verse (Spark did something similar with Rick Ross and Lil B on the Syrup Splash track “No Love for Me”), but on the aforementioned “Soup Cartridge Assembly,” what I think is original material masquerades as vintage sample. And perhaps Spark’s lyrical collage of conventional rap phrases and imagery is a kind of cultural criticism — at one point in his interview with Passion of the Weiss, he says of rappers: “we aint say shit anyways.” It might be the most earnest thing Spark says in that entire interview.
Or maybe not. I’ve used words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “seems” quite a bit, because Spark Master Tape’s mystique leads to conjecture, which also means a lot of opportunity to be wrong. That’s why, for this album, critical judgement should come first: the questions of who Spark Master Tape is and what he’s up to are secondary to the pure, grin-inducing fun of The #SWOUP Serengeti. So instead of giving this review a tidy end, I ask that you go back and reread from the beginning, but this time stop at “one of the best and most consistently produced mixtapes of the year.” I’m not sure the rest matters.