Wednesday, February 15, 2017

album review: 'chill, dummy' by p.o.s.

There's been a part of me that's been a lot more reticent to talk about this record than I probably should be. 

Part of it is that I've gone on record a number of times saying that of all the members of Doomtree, P.O.S. was probably my least favourite. That's not saying he's a bad MC - every member of that group can spit incredibly well, and they all have a knack for fantastic, hard-hitting hooks - but from my experience with both his solo projects and his Doomtree verses, P.O.S. is trying to walk a high-wire act that's high reward, but high risk. Of the group, he's always been the most outwardly political and borderline punk, not just in his content but in his production, which often feel assembled from the rough-edged shambles of his Doomtree work balanced with more ramshackle punk sounds. Coupled with a penchant for bombast, there's a fine line between righteous anthems anchored in real firepower and slipping towards the sort of self-indulgent corniness that can either be grudgingly tolerated or facepalm-worthy, it's no surprise that he was signed to Slug's label Rhymesayers, the two share a lot in common. And just like with Slug and Atmosphere, I can find P.O.S. a frustrating MC, especially with some of his cringier punchlines, flows and delivery that could be uncannily similar to Eminem, especially early on.

So what about his albums? Well again, given that I'm not a huge fan of his, I have a hard time calling out one as an absolute favourite before going into chill, dummy. I will say that Audition was probably the one that annoyed me the most in terms of frustrating lines and tones, but Never Better was a more refined pivot that featured more of the Doomtree crew and was better for it, albeit going on longer than it should. That problem was corrected by his 2012 project We Don't Even Live Here, but that record was frustrating because for all of the stronger grooves and some of his best ever hooks, between awkward synth tone choices and some extremely questionable lyrics it fell towards very uneven territory. So did similar issues show up on chill, dummy?

Well, this is a tough record to evaluate, and from what I can tell from hardcore P.O.S fans has even left them a little stymied on what to think about. For one, it's easily one of his furthest away from Doomtree to date, featuring no guest verses and only Lazerbeak's production on two songs, instead bringing in a broader selection of guest singers and rappers for an experience that almost seemed deliberately fragmented and more scattershot. If you're coming in expecting the focused political anthems or even the raucous bangers... well, adjust your expectations, because this is a pivot into different territory. Whether that territory is good... that's a very different question, and a lot tougher to ascertain.

So let's start with P.O.S himself - and look, the guy is a solid as hell rapper and one hell of a performer, and this album takes him through the gamut of his emotional range, from more meticulous contemplation that shows up on 'Infinite Scroll' or the sentimental moments of 'Faded' to the pure rage that burns through 'Sleepdrone/Superposition'. I do question some of his choices to sing - particularly on the opener 'Born A Snake', he sticks the landing better on 'Lanes' - but my larger questions circle around his flows more than his delivery. For the most part, I prefer P.O.S's bars when they are a little more structured and tightly woven, and yet more often than not this record found itself with flows that were more blunt and basic, shorter words and phrases that often rhyme but can feel increasingly disconnected from each other - or in the case of 'Pieces/Ruins', from the beat itself. I can't stress how awkward that track feels before Dwynell Roland and especially Busdriver emerge to ride that borderline trap beat, because P.O.S. barely feels on rhythm. Granted, these are not easy beats to ride or flow against - which might be why some of these verses feel more compact - but it's also not helped by a pile-up of vocal filters and pitch-shifting across this album that really only serves to blur lines or disguise moments where the wordplay doesn't seem to connect, especially when they're rhyming words with themselves. And that's not counting points where P.O.S can't even seem to pull a hook together, like on the end of 'Wearing A Bear' - which yes, I get going for a punk aesthetic, but there's a difference between that and what could be mistaken for sloppiness.

But this circles back to the production... and if you all remember my review of Sims' More Than Ever, you'd recall that I thought his production was going into more alien, twisted tones that could even get borderline industrial. Throughout most of this record P.O.S's production is similarly daunting, but once you get over the howling buzzy waves of synth, the grind of guitar, the bass textures that are all over the place, and shifts in beat and mixing fidelity that across the first half of this album does get distracting from track to track, especially from the dirty roil of the drums on 'Bully' to the overly clean albeit creepy atmospherics of 'Faded', a song that could have picked up some solid dark ambiance with P.O.S underplaying quite well if he hadn't gotten Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to add crooning that doesn't quite match him or the husky female singer Lady Midnight. But the frustrating thing is that the more I went through this album the more it seemed like certain production choices were flagrantly compromising themselves, from the first two tracks that both feel abortive to 'Get Ate' that doesn't even last ninety seconds before an abrupt transition, to how 'Thieves/Kings' holds a solid conceptual parallel together against a good hollow synth melody... only to be squandered by an outro full of this distorted crooning melody that doesn't help at all. It's frustrating because when P.O.S does focus we can get some solid production here: the piano and murky fuzz around 'Infinite Scroll' where both Open Mike Eagle and Manchita deliver great verses; the warping, elongated guitar tones across 'Gravedigger' where Angelenah brings her own ferocious balance to match P.O.S; and Lazerbeak's deeper synths and guitar tones against the bubbly low bass beat and drums that devolve into the murk on 'Roddy Piper'. Hell, even a shorter song like 'Lanes' works with the buzzy melodies and rougher drums, mostly because it's tight and the hook works. Contrast to 'Sleepdrone/Superposition' - good hook, solid buildup, but the song goes for nearly nine minutes and could have easily been trimmed for stronger impact and focus.

So fine, we've got a set of songs that feel misshapen and fragmented and really nowhere near as hook-driven as his previous work, do the lyrics and themes come together, at least? Well, according to P.O.S this is his least directly political work to date - which some might consider shocking, given the political turmoil right now might seem ripe for his commentary - and instead he turns inwards, focusing on what was lost while he recovered from a kidney transplant and his current state of mind. And given the curdled mass of frustrated self-awareness that runs through tracks like 'Born A Snake' and 'Faded', the hardcore aggression of 'Bully', and the drunken barroom tale of 'Roddy Piper' that ends in a pantless haze and a desire to vent emotions despite no audience, there are some harrowing moments. Now that's not saying there aren't politics - 'Wearing A Bear' and 'sleepdrone/superposition' mention #BlackLivesMatter with the frank practicality that also runs through the career reflections of 'Lanes' and 'Gravedigger' or the 'criminals-at-the-top' assertions of 'Thieves/Kings', although P.O.S seems much more interested in the follow-up question of how one deals with it going forward - although the nihilism that comes in the last case of how we're all going to end up dead anyways does dampen the mood. And as you'd expect he's not one to place value or real confidence in social media or technology, because while Open Mike Eagle crystallizes his reason and Manchita exposes hypocrisies on 'Infinite Scroll' finds himself even more on the feral outside, where for all of its harshness, it's a savage lane he's owned for a long time. And while he might not outlast more accessible hip-hop in other lanes, 'Gravedigger' makes it clear he'd prefer the flash in his path than the lingering numbness that comes with sacrificing for fame. And that indeed might be the biggest underlying theme of all of this, crystallized by 'sleepdrone/superposition': he's coming to accept all of the emotional peril and pain as various states of probability - owning it all instead of letting numbness cancel it out. And this is where my degree in physics comes in handy so I can explain quantum superposition: to boil it down to the poetic basics, it's a case where where an infinite number of probabilities where we might be be and exist in time are all on the same parallel, all possible. There might be constraints on one's lane, but by embodying all of them, owning all possibilities, certain elements of the waveform, of the particle, of the person, are amplified beyond all else.

Now moving beyond the science, I've always operated under the impression this was somewhat standard for P.O.S - he never seemed to be one to sell out, especially given his hard political bent, but despite the frustratingly fragmented nature of this album's composition, I can definitely see this being his most political work to date. I do wish the hooks had a little more punch and there are still elements of sloppiness that frustrated me - two of the factors that are keeping me from loving this in comparison to stronger work from other Doomtree members - but this is still good, and there's a potent core to the bars and flows that works, at least for me. As such, I'm giving this a very light 7/10, but a recommendation, particularly if you're looking for some hard-edged, aggressive hip-hop and are looking for a real challenge with the content. Again, I wouldn't call myself a P.O.S fan, but I respect him a fair bit more after this - solid work.

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