Buck 65 Situation

[Strangefamous; 2007]

Styles: underground hip-hop, civics lesson
Others: Aesop Rock, El-P

The media loves anniversaries, and 2007 has provided a few good ones for the cultural establishment to chew on, from fashionista to fine art. 1967: Summer of Love 40 years later! 1977: Punk rawk turns 30! 1997: Britney’s legacy reconsidered! Well, maybe not that last one. Either way, Buck 65 has added one more to the heap with Situation, a concept album about 1957 and the lasting effects of that year’s events on America at large 50 years down the road. What events, you say? Well, only the breakout of Elvis and the first white rock ‘n’ roll hit songs, the emergence of the Beat Generation with the publication and subsequent obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the disappearance of pinup girl Bettie Page, Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Sputnik and Laika, the foundation of the Situationist International movement... jeez Louise, what a melting pot of widespread cultural upheaval, huh? Fortunately Buck’s got it all laid out for us on his website with a handy little video and PDF tip sheet that lays out a statement of purpose for the whole album as if it were a thesis proposal.

Problem is, that’s exactly what the whole thing feels like: an ambitious U.S. History II final project for some open-minded young teacher from someone who studied up on his share of the KRS-One knowledge way back when. Buck has clearly done his homework here; the research and thought-process are crystal-clear if you take the time to read the background literature and think through every lyric. And as a succinct people’s history, the results are pretty impressive. But the whole thing reeks of Sufjan-style book-report music, and with a few exceptions, Buck’s lyrics take too much exegesis to enjoy on their own merits.

Take “1957,” for example, the first ‘real’ track, which summarily lays out Buck’s preoccupations with the year in “We Didn’t Start The Fire” fashion (red flag already, right?). The verses beat the pants off Billy Joel, but when the chorus hits, it’s just “No joke/ Hit the low note/ We all go to heaven in a little row boat.” Huh? If you do the work he’s asking for here, thinking as seriously as he did about the project, you’ll find that he could be name-checking Tom Waits and Radiohead, both of whom have used the same line in past songs and who are probably going back to their original source material in Dante’s Inferno. Think a little more, and maybe he’s obliquely referencing the cyclical view of history in Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of The West, the intellectually in-vogue text that the Beats were picking up from the high literary modernists right about that time, which makes sense because T.S. Eliot combined the spiraling decline of the Inferno with Spengler’s theories in “The Waste Land”... whoa. That’s some heavy lifting, and we’re only on track two. And even with all that freight of allusion to back it up, “We all go to heaven in a little row boat” isn’t exactly a chorus to get a crowd moving. The same problem extends to a lot of the vocal hooks on the album, especially on the next two tracks, which follow interesting verses with a repeated “Dang diggy dang” or “Ooh, ahh, ooh, ahh” -- it's tough to pull off a chorus like that unless your name starts with Ol’ Dirty and ends with -astard.

Situation might still be palatable if the beats were up-to-snuff. But what to say of Skratch Bastid’s production? Words like “competent” and “serviceable” come quickest to mind. The intro gets you fired up for some serious post-Shadow boom-bap in the vein of RJD2, albeit without the sneaky horn section that’s always lurking around the corners of his best tracks. The first few tracks deliver on that promise with a surprising Dust Brothers rock-guitar sucker punch to boot (on “Dang”), but a lot of the beats slide by on little more than tired piano lines and a lazy, sparse thwack, devoid of character. This minimal approach might have worked with a fiercer MC and even more up-front drums in the time-tested mold of Eric B. and Rakim, but Buck’s flat, raspy flow can’t sustain any momentum.

Another big problem is that despite his way with words, the guy just isn’t a charismatic MC. Buck got slapped with the tag of “hip-hop Tom Waits” early on, but beyond the immediate tonal similarities of their grimy timbres at surface level, he hasn’t inherited any of the elder’s lusty, maniacal passion or visionary weirdness. It almost feels like an injustice to compare him to Def Junkies like Aesop Rock and El Producto, even if few of the other white boys in the game can summon such prodigious intellectual resources. Buck just doesn’t have the angry, raging fire in his belly that gives life to their dense lyric nor the fury that pushes through the occasional weak flow to keep you rapt at attention, like you might get hurt if you weren’t.

Buck’s got a scattering of real decent tracks here, like “1957,” “Shutter Buggin’,” “Cop Shades,” and “Mr. Nobody.” For the most part, if one of these songs came up on shuffle, I wouldn’t skip passed it or turn it off. His ambition’s got the better of him this time, though: it’s tough to care about the overarching (and admittedly interesting) theme when the component songs aren't satisfying themselves.

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