God bless Lyrics Born. In 2010, the Berkeley native is still up to his old hip-hop classicist tricks, still shooting nothing but good vibes, still dodging Parental Advisory labels as if Tipper Gore even matters anymore. He has no axe to grind, thank the Lord, so there’s no side of sour grapes ‘real hip hop’ posing served with his anachronism. But anachronism it is; when the rap mainstream is the perfect pop intersection of Lil Wayne’s crunk mania and Kanye West’s digital soul, is this brand of recourse to brasher, simpler times really all that necessary?
On As U Were, his third LP, Lyrics Born—née Tsutomu Shimura—sometimes makes a convincing case that it might be. “Oh Baby!” is the dizzying boast-rap of a “Japanese cat from outer space” that, like the tracks fellow Soleside/Quannum Projects alum Cut Chemist used to mix with Jurassic 5 and Blackalicious, trusts verbal dexterity and a swingbeat alone to light up our pleasure centers. Meanwhile, “Kontrol Phreak”, “Woulda Coulda Shoulda”, and “Pushed Aside/Pulled Apart” are dead ringers for the elastic funk-pop of Sugar Hill Records, Cameo, and Rick James. And I do mean dead ringers: aside from how uncannily similar Shimura’s oily baritone sounds to Cameo’s Larry Blackmon, the production on these tracks nails that horn-stabbed, disco-damaged, slap-bass-happy urban sound. The defense rests: with the possible exception of the arch, “Superfreak”-aping “Kontrol Phreak”, I concede that playing by old school rules produces most of As U Were’s hottest bangers.
Two other cuts ride high by more modern means. Trackademicks puts together a platform of piston-pops for Lyrics Born and the Team’s Clyde Carson to spar on, and if it sounds a lot like something Pharrell might do, that’s hardly a bad thing. “We Live By the Beat” nods to the hazy polyrhythms Prince Charles was so fond of with its steel drum clatter but actually ends up more like Hercules and Love Affair’s “You Belong”—again, not a bad thing in the slightest. Yet still, as 2010 (or, at least, 2005) as they sound, they reflect the same uncomplicated credo of quick rhymes and big hooks that’s made Shimura’s shit an easy sell since his post-G-funk breakthrough, “Callin’ Out”, in 2003.
On the album’s lesser half, the hooks are just as big but weak, and the rhyming is sluggish or scarce. Scarce? Yes, Lyrics Born continues that most irredeemable of recent trends, the singing rapper, more often than he should (never). When Biz Marckie cracked his way through “Just a Friend,” it was funny. When The-Dream does it, he uses Autotune, and it’s funny. But when Kid Cudi and Why? do it, it sounds silly, so why do it at all? Isn’t this what back-up singers are for? Shimura isn’t a flat-out terrible crooner (he kills it in the gentle verse of “Lies x3”, only to kill it in a bad way on the chorus) , and he still raps well enough, but his corny second-person harangues (“Something Better”), dismal balladeering (“I’ve Lost Myself” “(What Happened 2 Our) Love Affair?”), and phony egomania (“I’m the Best”), all wrapped up in standard retro-futurism-du-jour, don’t pick up much of his slack.
No one could begrudge him his taste for booty pop and getting “funky fresh,” but Lyrics Born’s genre rigor fosters a regrettable lack of imagination. I suspect this has something to do with wanting to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, adhering to a kind of block-party populism. But why does forgoing wit for earnestness have to follow from that?