[5 May 2010]
There may not be another artist working today that plays to their own strengths as readily and willingly as MC Frontalot. The man who came up with the term “nerdcore” to describe his own brand of geek-flavored hip-hop knows his audience, knows his skills, and knows how to surround himself with people who enhance his credibility as a nerd.
Seriously, look at this guest list. John Hodgman (he’s a PC!) shows up for an absurd little question-and-answer skit. Randall Munroe, best known as the man behind XKCD, puts together a custom comic for the liner notes and, um, calls Frontalot in the middle of the night for the listeners’ benefit. Other disciples of nerdcore hip-hop like Dual Core and Beefy show up for a verse or two, and even Soul Coughing’s Mike Doughty shows up to sing about Wil Wheaton (“Your friend Wil says ‘Don’t be a dick!’”). This is nerd Mecca in the form of a 12-centimeter polycarbonate disc.
Granted, the same could be said about all of MC Frontalot’s albums, so what’s different about this one? Honestly, not much. Zero Day is maybe a little bit more focused in its subject matter, maybe a little bit smoother and fuller on the production side, but for the most part, it’s Just Another Frontalot CD. And there’s really, truly nothing wrong with that.
Part of the appeal here is that so many of MC Frontalot’s topics are things that everyone—not just nerds, that is—can relate to or enjoy, even if it is the nerds that are typically most vocal about them. “Spoiler Alert” goes ahead and spoils the endings to all of the movies most associated with the titular alert (The Crying Game, The Sixth Sense, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, etc.), before veering into the absurd and spoiling Y2K, the ‘80s, and the French Revolution. “Jacquelyn Hyde” (get it?) sounds like a plain old boy-girl breakup song, but it’s actually a boy-corn syrup, boy-PlayStation 2, boy-ear infection breakup song. “The Council of Loathing” is a role-player’s delight, channeling frustration and rage into a vaguely Medieval narrative. All of it is done with a vague undercurrent of self-deprecation, which allows the listener to see Frontalot as not delusional so much as honest.
Knowing his audience’s penchant for overanalysis, Frontalot has even given us stuff to do, all of it embedded in the CD in some way or another, counting on the fact that the prototypical nerd loves to tear things apart and solve riddles. One of these songs is called “80085”, which may be the punchline to the most juvenile calculator-based joke in the book, but like “The Aristocrats”, it’s how you get there that counts. In this case, Frontalot turns it into a couple of verses worth of word problem, the best deconstruction of which can be found here. If you don’t feel like meticulously analyzing lyrics, there’s a more hacker-type challenge in the form of “Painstakingly Concealed Secret Track”, the final track on the album. One could dismiss it as a joke, a minute of silence poking fun at the “secret track” phenomenon, but that would be too easy. There is a secret song to be found in that minute, but you have to work for it. Those who manage to do so even get to register their initials online.
For the record, the hidden song itself is kind of an admittedly well-executed toss-off, but as the lyrics point out, quality isn’t the point—the point is status, the point is being part of an exclusive group of people who has ever heard it.
As such, “Painstakingly Concealed Secret Track” becomes something of a metaphor for Zero Day, and for MC Frontalot’s music in general. Frontalot is a competent but unspectacular rapper who never met a couplet he didn’t like, whose delivery is intentionally stilted and awkward. He embraces the awkwardness, of course, to further the persona, and that embrace in turn endears Frontalot to an audience who has a lot of experience with being awkward. We listen to Frontalot not because he is brilliant, but because he is us. To embrace his music is to embrace our very nature. That Frontalot gives us a venue to do so is enough.