On an episode of Pitchfork’s Selector series, wise-ass Brooklyn rap crew Das Racist broke down the elements of a successful modern hip-hop album: “You have to have that hood song, club songs, couple filler songs, a North Carolina joint”. Sadly spot on, the members of Das Racist have tried to dismantle the concept of what a successful hip-hop album can be. The Palm Wine Drinkard, the first solo mixtape from Das Racist member Victor Vazquez, aka Kool A.D., is a continuation of that approach. One gets the sense that he both deeply cares about the final product and yet doesn’t care at all. It’s one of several reasons that The Palm Wine Drinkard is fun to listen to, even if it won’t make any critical best-of lists this year.
On that same episode of Selector, the guys were asked to freestyle over a Girl Unit beat. After a straightforward verse from Himanshu Suri, aka Heems, Kool A.D. took over and just chanted “Michael Jackson/A million dollars/You feel me?/Holla” over and over. Even for a freestyle it was uninventive. Little did anyone realize that those were actual lyrics written beforehand, the chorus to what would become “Michael Jackson” from 2011’s Relax. If you ever needed to sum up how little Kool A.D. cares about being a “real mc”, this is it: He brings pre-written lyrics to a freestyle and still sounds unprepared.
The Palm Wine Drinkard is a Neapolitan ice cream of different styles. The first flavor is experimental, and the album kicks off with a seven-minute instrumental relying heavily on the framework of Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” while “Lagrimas Blancas” is a lyrical playground for Kool, who intones “Bitch I’m Ronald Reagan/Bitch I’m hecka-cakin’/Bitch I’m Ronald Reagan/Bitch I’m James Murphy” with the same veracity he once chanted about Michael Jackson. “Flying Through the Air Inna Airplane” is similar, but has a poet’s sensibility with the repetition of phrases and images. There’s the hint of real depth there, a sardonic look at the life of a traveling musician.
The second flavor is auto-tuned R&B, a pair of songs clustered in the album’s center that contain a startling amount of nuance and sincerity. “A Ganglion of Lightnings” might be the best song here, combining a calculated hand at the controls with lyrics the Weeknd would be proud of. On “Girls and Women”, a reflective Kool croons: “Girls don’t think enough/Women think too much”, a lyric that would have been right at home on Drake’s Take Care.
The final flavor is the straight up party jam. Self-explanatory “Fun” features Kool at his most lyrically lackadaisical “It’s a brand new dance/Everybody loves it/Everybody in the world probably does it/You can do it/Get up out your chair/I need you, I need you, I need you to be there”. It sounds wack. It is wack, but like much of Das Racist’s apathy-and-irony-drenched compositions, that’s part of why it works. Then there’s “Booty in the Air”, a remix of Das Racist’s repetitive and unlikable dance track which batters down your defenses with its innocuous simplicity. You know it’s a lark yet you’re guaranteed to spend hours with “Booty in the air! Booty in the air! Booty in the air!” on repeat in your head.
What Kool A.D. doesn’t do right in terms of broad appeal and commercial possibility is obvious. “Booty in the Air” isn’t coming to a club near you, and there’s nary a North Carolina joint in sight. The Palm Wine Drinkard is a messy mix of goofy ideas slammed together by a guy as seemingly interested in entertaining himself as he is in making consumable art. But what he does do well is surprise and entertain, building the recognizable form of an album out of disparate pieces, like the calm piano of “Malcomm” juxtaposed with the discordant freewheeling acid jazz of “Antenna Man’s Theme”. It’s like found art, or a babushka made out of garbage bags. Kool breaks down your expectations until you’re not even sure what you’re listening to. It makes you wonder: serious effort, goofball side project, or elaborate troll? With Kool A.D., like Michael Jackson’s doctor before sentencing: you never know what you’re going to get.