Monday, July 27, 2015

album review: 'pound syndrome' by hopsin

You're not going to find many underground rappers as controversial these days as Hopsin - and not for the reasons you might think.

See, I remember reviewing Knock Madness nearly two years ago and liking it, but upon repeated relistens, outside of a few tracks it's not exactly a record that's held up all that well. As much as I like Hopsin's flow and bars and his penchant for descriptive imagery and his desire to hit more serious subject matter, his material has its fair share of problems. For one, he's a better rapper than producer, and while he rides his beats well, they don't nearly have the texture to really hold up if there isn't more melody. But the larger issue comes in the dichotomy of his content and persona - like his main influence Eminem he uses the alternate Hopsin persona when he wants to get visceral or violent and the 'Marcus' persona when he wants to get more serious. The problem is that the line can blur and not only can it make some of his conscious material feel preachy, but it can also feel pretty hypocritical, especially when he talks about women. At its best - sort of like his singing and his hooks - it's corny and I can tolerate a fair amount of it, but at its worst it's more than a little insufferable, especially considering Knock Madness was nearly full throttle all the time and could have used some room to slow down and breathe.

And I'm not sure exactly when it was, but the critical conversation about Hopsin polarized in a big way with this shift in his subject matter, especially considering how much he was dicking with his fanbase, saying he was going to retire to Australia and then pull a Dumb And Dumber To joke to unretire and drop another album he produced himself. And look, I was going to cover this album: for the most part I like Hopsin, and you can't deny he can spit and even if Pound Syndrome sucked, it would at least be interesting, right?

Honestly, not as interesting as I was expecting. I really went into Pound Syndrome hoping to find more to like, but with every repeated listen, I can't help but feel that while there has been incremental improvements, Hopsin is starting to fall into bad habits, and the hypocrisy is starting to wear on patience. I'm not saying that Pound Syndrome is a bad album - honestly, it's not - but there's a fair fewer number of great tracks that really grip me and even they aren't as strong as Knock Madness' best.

So let's get the obvious positives out of the way, and most of that focuses on Hopsin himself. I've always liked this guy as an MC in terms of his technical flow and structuring of his rhymes, and and with Pound Syndrome he's steadily showing more flexibility that isn't as reminiscent of his influences. And while I'm not always the biggest fan of his yelling or the more cartoonish voices - more on this in a bit - he's got a level of immediacy and intensity in his bars that's really hard to ignore while still maintaining a fair amount of cleverness. And while I'm still iffy on the singing - more on this record than Knock Madness if only because some of the hooks are shakier - it's done with enough heartfelt punch that I can usually overlook some of the weaker moments. And all three of his crew - SwizZz, Jarren Benton, and especially Dizzie Wright on 'Fort Collins' - can definitely hold their own in terms of structured and focused bars, to the point where I'm genuinely surprised there's no posse cut on this record.

And to his credit, Hopsin's production work is getting a little stronger. He's still a far distance from being a great producer, and with melodic hooks not quite as strong as Knock Madness, it's hard not to notice the seams, but there are moments I definitely like. For one, his more textured drums on 'Fort Collins', 'Ill Mind of Hopsin 7', and the infusion of more trap hi-hats on 'Mr. Jones' and 'Crown Me' do sound fairly good, and the bass-heavy beats of the intro, the closer 'I Just Can't', and 'No Fucks Given' are balanced fairly well against the keyboards and in the last case a rough acoustic groove I actually didn't mind. But it's here where we run into the first big issue: the guitar tones, namely how so many of them sound so goddamn thin and lacking in depth and grit, and without the thicker groove to balance well against these beats. They feel as imported from a preset as half of the strings and all of the horns do on this album, not having the organic edge to really ground its punch. Hell, even the synths can feel thinner than they should, like on the otherwise excellent track 'FV Till I Die' over the verse or the airy track 'Fly', which really is an odd fit for a rant against the system that's less Kendrick and more Kanye, especially with that gratuitous autotune slathered all over the hook. And this takes us to those hooks... and yeah, there are some that have punch like 'Crown Me' or even 'Fort Collins', but others like 'No Fucks Given' and 'Forever Ill' that just do nothing for me whatsoever. And look, I can appreciate Hopsin did it all himself and I appreciate snide jabs at mainstream rappers who rely more on heavy beats than any sort of bars or words, especially on the pretty damn funny skit 'No Words' - but when some of your beats can't even rise to that level and you still co-opt mainstream trends and flows for your hooks... glass houses, dude.

And on that note, let's talk about lyrics and content, the area where I'm inclined to seeing more from Hopsin... and where I ended up getting a lot less. Part of this is inevitable - Hopsin seems more stable and confident than the unstable neurosis that drove so much of Knock Madness, but that also means the dramatic stakes somehow feel lower. 'No Hope' and 'No Fucks Given' are both stabs at moochers that are solid enough but don't really do much all that special, and 'Forever Ill' and 'Crown Me' are stabs at the mainstream that might be well-deserved but are a little undercut when in the latter case Hopsin's targeting rappers for being feminine or being gay or bi. Now don't get me wrong, the attacks on advertising and materialism and fame for its own sake and reality shows that perpetuate terrible stereotypes about black culture on songs like 'Fly', there are solid points to be made there... But dude, if you want to rip on Young Thug, he's more than wack enough for you to take him apart without ripping on his sexuality. It just comes across as juvenile and lacking in deeper insight, and it makes your more conscious side ring as more than a little hypocritical. It also doesn't exactly make you look good when you attack rappers who never made it big commercially or wannabes trying to leverage connections to get to the top - yes, I know they're easy targets and I know you probably deal with hundreds of them, but you can do better than that, especially when you brag about getting the XXL Freshman cover as if that's ever been a standard for quality. Where this album gets more interesting at least for me is the storytelling - sure, 'FV Till I Die' isn't anything all that new, I know the story, but it's still well told, and 'Fort Collins' did a solid job exploring his introspection why he ditched that tour stop and the very real fallout from Dizzy Wright's point of view, which did a lot to humanize the song and show both sides of the story. But on the opposite hand we've got 'Ramona', an attempt at bad comedy about a hysterical girl following Hopsin's crew on tour with Jarren Benton that just becomes incredibly grating by the outro and just another entry in the list of bad songs Hopsin has written about women, with this being one of the worst.

And of course, there's 'Ill Mind of Hopsin 7', his skyward rant at God that features some of his best production and raw insight as he tries to untangle the loss of his faith... and oh man, I wanted to like this more than I do. Because I definitely get his anger and frustration at being asked to have faith in a God that doesn't answer and his pleas to have that something to believe in, especially when the religion built by men around it imposes contradictory morality and in his mind is simply used to control people. Not an uncommon point-of-view or conclusion for him to reach... but the more I think about the rationale for his conclusions, the more I'm left looking for more. I think where Hopsin could have found peace of mind by separating religion's structure of God versus faith itself, or treated The Bible as a morality fable or allegory instead of hard fact... and given he supposedly analysed the book, I'm a little surprised he didn't do that. Instead, his rationale for the rejection of faith is that he wants to have fun on the life on earth he knows and he's not going to pass that up - I get it, going with a sure thing, but it feels thin and unsatisfying especially when there's more of a middle ground he could have taken. 

But that would require greater nuance, and the more I listened through Pound Syndrome, the more I'm realizing that Hopsin didn't really bring that on this record. Yes, he's a good rapper and yes, he's got some pieces of common sense insight that I do like, but for as expressive and emotive of a rapper as he is, the subtlety isn't there. Coupled with production that really should have been better and a lack of great hooks to back it up, I'm thinking a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but mostly for Hopsin fans only. Pound Syndrome might place Hopsin in a more defined, stable place than previous records, but now I want to see how he can leverage that foundation, and from listening to this album, he's got some work to do.

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