I vividly remember the December night I stumbled on the Cool Kids and thought, in many ways, I’d discovered the future. The group had their six existing songs uploaded to an Imeem account on which I spent at least two hours, leaving the music on repeat as I smoked a bowl and prepared my physics and chemistry homework for the next day. As the days progressed, I was consumed with the idea that I’d found my generation’s version of EPMD, a group so simplified and, for lack of better syntax, cool that they were likable enough by the mere experience of their sound. Eventually the group would craft enough tracks to release a mixtape titled Instant Classics sponsored by the re-introduction of Napster, a mixtape that was eventually whittled down to the Bake Sale EP that became their first retail offering. But this discovery occurred in 2006, the tape in 2007 and the EP in 2008. In two years, the new tracks were minimal and the forward momentum stunted despite TV commercials featuring “Black Mags” and an avalanche of internet hype. The fact of the matter was the group was surviving on the hype of some tracks that were becoming years old, and their momentum seemed as stunted as any other internet phenomenon.
More mixtapes and a theme track for NBA 2K10 would follow, but the past three years, ultimately, have not been kind to the group that I felt would rise to the top of the crop in a short time. Their LP, When Fish Ride Bicycles, was quickly become an aptly titled piece of musical fiction, something whose release seemed as likely as a DOOM and Ghostface collaboration or, in the name of a tight narrative, Ghostface hopping on a Wu-Tang tribute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Chuck Inglish became something of an in-demand producer, developing his style beyond the sound that was “bringing ‘88 back” into a Kanye Westian sound full of ‘80s synths, ‘00s bass and multiple musical movements within his beats that called to mind few peers. His evolution found its then-crest on Chip tha Ripper’s free LP earlier this year, Gift Raps, an album which seemed to elevate both musicians into a sphere beyond our understanding of their talents. Chip was suddenly one of the most easily enjoyable rappers in the game, and Chuck one of the genre’s most talented and forward-looking producers. But where was Mikey? Where were the Cool Kids?
Mikey was cutting mixtapes with various producers and making random album appearances, but the Cool Kids were following their influences to Pharrell Williams’ Miami studios, where whatever the original foundation of When Fish Ride Bicycles was scrapped in favor of a collaboration with Mountain Dew’s newfound Green Label Sound and the oversight of my childhood’s most rebellious music aficionado. The results are finally reaching us in July of 2011, a little less than five years after the Cool Kids first seemed to be at the vanguard of hip-hop’s new style, and much like Pharrell’s mentorship of crack kingpins the Clipse, it seems like the long journey from local (in this case, internet) treasure to national force has been well worth the wait.
On the surface, Mikey and Chuck are purveyors of the same sense of detached cool they were in 2006, but it takes only one or two songs to realize both have coagulated their struggles into one hell of a “debut” LP. Chuck raps more frequently than he ever has while Mikey’s drawl has developed into a nigh-impenetrable mixture of Curren$y’s deliverance and Raekwon’s slang-crazy nasality. The two cover these 11 tracks of millennium-filtered boom bap with a feel that was appropriately referred to by Ghostface during the sessions that yielded “Penny Hardaway” as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… like. A comment massive in weight and surely worthy of skepticism if not outright denial, but the plot isn’t that When Fish Ride Bicycles is that album or even last year’s cinematic coup de grace My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I wouldn’t even claim it’s the equivalent of this year’s Oneirology, delivered by CunninLynguists and the incomparable production ear of Kno. But to listen to When Fish Ride Bicycles and argue that a cohesive, intoxicating atmosphere entirely separate but vaguely reminiscent of the ways those artists drug us into their world, refusing to let our attention spans wane for the duration of their holding us captive, is not occurring? A lie, to be frank.
The album draws you in with a lot of car talk, evidence from the song titles on downwards, but very quickly it evolves into an album in which the appeal is as the band states it is: Chuck and Mikey are cool, their friends are cool, and you want to listen to them do what they do. It’s that simple. Ghostface and Bun B provide the guest-related star power, though neither plot to steal the show. And blogger friends like Asher Roth (on a never-ending string of redemptive guest appearances since the Bread Aisle flop), the aforementioned Chip tha Ripper, Mayer Hawthorne and Boldy James provide the on-the-block atmosphere that’s always been essential to the Cool Kids aesthetic. The result is a brisk, sub-40 minute sonic adventure with no grand statements, no pleas that you pay this group any serious attention at all. It is, as the album unfolds, an album whose surface-level appeal certainly relies on image and perception, but whose ultimate pleasure comes not from the typical hedonism of peers like Wiz Khalifa or Mac Miller but from the simple idea that this group is entertaining as hell to listen to. And thus, as they’ve allowed their sound to grow as far away from their initial appearance as EPMD reincarnated as it (probably) possibly could, they’ve in so many ways allowed themselves to embody that initial directive more than one could have ever expected given the duo’s evolution and distance from their more exuberant, aloof beginnings.
The surprises of When Fish Ride Bicycles are more subtle than a title like that may suggest, and the influence of Pharrell on the final production even moreso. When he finally drops by for a production credit on album-closer “Summer Jam”, however, what makes these guys so essential is laid bare for all to hear. Despite a poppy Maxine Ashley chorus that could leave some cold, the beat itself is some of Pharrell’s most exciting in years, as though he felt challenged by these guys and Chuck in particular to rediscover his reputation as a curator of interesting sounds. And so too should all who hear this album feel inspired, whether that be to find more confidence in themselves, their peers or their art. When Fish Ride Bicycles is deceptively simple by design but essentially entertaining by default, and as those keyboards develop over the course of “Roll Call” and one realizes nearly 40 minutes have sped by in what felt like fifteen, I can’t see any reaction to this release other than a token head nod of approval, a raised hand bobbing up and down to the beat silently proclaiming these Chicagoans have delivered on everything they promised us in those cold, distant winter days in which they silently premiered.