Sunday, March 31, 2019

album review: 'this was supposed to be fun' by epic beard men (sage francis & b. dolan)

Not going to mince words: this was one of my most hotly anticipated hip-hop projects of 2019.

And if you're familiar with Epic Beard Men from their killer EP Season 1 last year - or hell, from any of the solo projects of Rhode Island MCs Sage Francis or B. Dolan - you'd completely understand why. Hell, I'm a little stunned why there doesn't seem to be more hype within the hip-hop underground: stellar MCs with expressive delivery that helped lay the groundwork of emo rap, delivering a collaborative project off a really strong EP that's sure to be rife with progressive and activist politics in an era where that is more the rage than ever, if there's a moment for this duo to be dropping an album, it's now! And while the EP had primed the pump, I knew that the full album was probably set to solve my minor gripes with that project, giving more room to modulate tone and incorporate a broader subset of acts and production to lend the project diversity. And considering they picked up Slug from Atmosphere, Wu-Tang affiliate Blue Raspberry, and Yugen Blakrok, whose great sophomore project dropped earlier this year, it looked like all the pieces were in place for this to work - so no more wasting time, what did we get from This Was Supposed To Be Fun?

So I've got a bit of a dilemma with this project, because if you're coming from Season 1, This Was Supposed To Be Fun is a bit of a different experience - not that it's worse by any stretch, I'd probably still place this among my favourite hip-hop albums of the year, if not albums of the year altogether in terms of sheer creativity, bonkers production, and sheer force of will that Sage Francis and B. Dolan use to yank this across the finish line. But the comparison to me between the EP and this full-length - and bear with me on this - is a little like the difference between Metallica's Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets, in which they're both visceral landmarks and the second project is more developed, diverse, consistent and probably "better" on aggregate - but there is a riotous, undeniable energy to the best cuts on the first that I'm not quite sure materializes in the same way.

Granted, the sheer wit and alchemy of songs like 'Shotgun Golf' and 'Two Different Worlds' would be damn hard to replicate for any act - they're lightning in a bottle, especially the former - but I have to give a ton of props to the duo for not explicitly trying and still delivering a plethora of varied subjects and ideas along the way. And if you've heard these guys before, you already know what you're going to get: B. Dolan the pragmatic activist who is more of a fast-paced technician who might be a bit more grounded but still has his fair share of fuck-ups and hang-ups - the numerous potshots taken at Justin Timberlake were noted - and then there's Sage Francis, who seems to be embracing more of his wild-man instincts and be a little more transgressive in the ordinary - he'll swing bigger and put more on the line, but said risks can backfire, often in hilarious fashion. And I have to stress this: for as dark and brilliantly framed in its empathy and humanity can be - including in spots where I didn't expect it would be, which we will get into - this project is still downright hilarious, overstuffed with wit and fantastic comedic timing that goes for broke and taps into wells of comedy from the self-deprecating to the impeccably targeted. And what caught me by surprise was how much some of the guest stars were willing to play into their vision, from Slug getting alarmingly sleazy embodying 'Pistol Dave' to how Yugen Blakrok almost seems to play against type on the closing track 'Foresight'... at least until the primary metaphor of the song is flipped, but we'll get to that. That being said, I do think the two other guest MCs can't quite match the personality - as much as I enjoyed hearing Vockah Redu drop a verse on 'Take A Break', he seemed a little low in the mix and the kazoo outro directly after it kind of muddied his impact, and I wasn't really that wild about Eligh's verse on 'Crumbs In Every Bag' either. And while I'm complaining, I will mention that the sequencing of this project doesn't quite seem to strike the balance it could, especially in its final third - again, for as much raw adrenaline as this album has, I question placing darker, more downbeat songs to end the project off when they could have been interspaced across the album - yeah, 'Circle The Wagons' and 'Hedges' both racket up the tension, but that's different than going dark, which if you're comparing to either of our MCs' solo albums, it never hits that point - which makes the choice to kill the momentum at the end for the last few songs a bit of a weird one outside of living up to the title.

But that's really where a lot of my criticisms end, because the second you get to the breadth of production and flair on display while still factoring in real hooks and texture, it can't help but place this album in a different ballpark, spanning from more conventional sample-driven hip-hop with scratching and dustier beats to the chiptune synths on 'You Can't Tell Me Shit' that we got samples of on Season 1, to even songs that feel like outright rap-rock, where the primary tone behind 'The Chill Is Gone' is a chugging riff that wouldn't be out of place in punk! And I'll admit this is something of which I've struggled with both these guys, either solo or together, in that getting the right level of consistent texture can be a bit inconsistent, but I think they nail the balance here - or at least keep the tempos so aggressive it's hard to notice where things go off the rails. Now that's not saying they don't - I like the eerie cross of futurism and mystic tones of 'Foresight' as pretty much the perfect pocket for Yugen Blakrok, but I really wasn't a fan of the synths that ended the song, not the way I'd finish the album, and I've already mentioned the kazoo outro - but more often than not there's a kooky sense of personality that absolutely fits the duo... which makes more sense when you discover that B. Dolan produced just over half the album. And one thing I appreciate is how even when there are moments that are trying to have a little more elegant instrumentation, there's always something just subtly askew to set the vibe and make things feel a bit more dangerous: the coursing wave of the groove of 'Hours & Minutes', the tragi-comic switches in tone for each verse on 'Pistol Dave' - along with the surprising choice to keep some real sincerity through Blue Raspberry's passages and especially her outro, the horns playing off some pretty interesting percussion choices on 'Take A Break', and that's before you notice how breathless and creepy songs like 'Circle The Wagons', 'Hedges', and especially the warped, haunted reggae flip of 'Man Overboard'.

But it's that ability to balance tone that deserves the most attention, and it's time we talk about the lyrics. Now obviously you're going to get songs that are pure braggadocious flair and lyricism and disdain for the mainstream industry: 'Hours & Minutes', 'Take A Break', 'The Chill Is Gone', 'Crumbs In Every Bag', you get the deal... but if you pay attention between the lines both in sequencing, you'll notice a few interesting subtleties. For one, 'Crumbs In Every Bag' is a pretty straightforward industry indictment, but I like how B. Dolan sneaks in the direct reference to failed parenting and cries for help by the kids eaten alive by the industry that nobody really wants to acknowledge. And on that note, 'Sand Dunes' takes stories of rough, wild childhoods and draws some pretty explicit parallels to being in the industry, but I like the framing of how even if some of it is rooted in childishness, there can be deadly serious elements to immaturity. Hell, if you want a testament to that, the next song 'Pistol Dave' is a stirring indictment of the leather-clad layabout who is exactly as sleazy, gross, and easily pressed as can be, but it's telling how the song ends on a note of how such a man persists and can be attractive, even if you know better. And that sense of humanity and its flaws informs the majority of this album - how 'Circle The Wagons' is protective and paranoid but shows how systems can play into that and exploit it, or how so many of the claims on 'You Can't Tell Me Shit' span from the sensible to the absurd to the utterly outrageous, but the belligerence is what's on trial. And what I love is how neither artist walks away from those human failings - 'Shin Splints' is an utterly hilarious late-at-the-airport story that plays into all of that, and 'The Chill Is Gone' does so too - the duo is approached with the absurd question of forming a boy band, and after giving it a few seconds of consideration after the fiery verses, Sage Francis proclaims he'll indulge a slight moment of toxic masculinity: for they would not be a boy band, but a man band! But on the flip side, the same failures of communication can have a much darker angle, with 'Hedges' feeding into the misguided assumptions of two suburban guys where there's probably a note of truth for them both, the distrust drives them further away. And 'Man Overboard' is a pretty apt extended metaphor for the late capitalist decadent collapse of a cruise ship where the samples of the Fyre Festival might even be too obvious to end the song. And 'Foresight' cuts deeper, with some expected disdain for fortune tellers who'll read people to take advantage of those in need... but how is that so much different from major companies streamlining their data analytics about you to then manufacture a need and sell you things? And while there's a part of me that knows this album probably could have even gone more political, these guys are smart enough to know the right balance and empathetic enough to strike it with power, precision, and real populism.

So at the end of the day... yeah, this is one of those projects I had to cover first because of so many albums released on the same day, especially in hip-hop, I knew this was going to be overshadowed - and it shouldn't be. Relentlessly creative and fun but fully capable of being serious and poignant, Sage Francis and B. Dolan handily knocked this out of the park. And again, while I'm not sure there's a song that goes as hard as 'Shotgun Golf' here, overall in terms of a project that again demonstrates lyricism and hard production can go hand in hand with enough dimensions for any occasional while still sounding cohesive. And as such... yeah, light 9/10, and I can't praise this enough. This Was Supposed To Be Fun may imply it's not, but it's a riot that reads the riot act and has a blast doing it - you're not going to hear much hip-hop in 2019 that sounds like this, but that's on you. You all need to hear this, it's kickass!

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