So I’m e-mailing the editor of this very Web site about Bubba Sparxxx’s new disc, and she’s wary of the weak buzz she’s heard. “I loved that last album,” she writes. “It was such a unique sound. I hope he hasn’t gone all bling and boring.”
Oh sweet mother of Timbaland, do I have bad news. Up in here.
Likely to go down as one of the year’s most disappointing belly-flops, Sparxxx’s third record The Charm (get it?) doesn’t go bling and boring so much as rejoice in it, splash around in it, rub it all over itself and go sprinting through the fields in the moonlight. This is one that starts boring, gets worse and then, for good measure, brings in Frankie J. to play a hook boy on a track called “Run Away”, a love song with an acoustic guitar loop. (“‘Cause baby you’re my everything” Sparxxx sings—sings! —in the chorus). Er, someone been listening to too much Everlast?
The Charm comes looking like something’s different, like an old friend with a horrible haircut, or some goofy new beard. First up: The big man is all slimmed-down now, looking less like the corn-fed po’ boy from Deliverance and Dark Days, Bright Nights and more like Bubba Svelteee. This is disturbing news to those of us who were used to Bubba the big man; personally, I totally liked him better fat. Like John Popper.
But Sparxxx is not a dumb guy, and though critics were all over those first two projects (both of which were overseen by Timbaland), he’s got enough self-awareness to realize that his sales weren’t up to snuff. So The Charm is a full-court-press grab for as much radio/MTV/iTunes love as possible, kicking off with the exceedingly conservative Mr. Collpark-produced single “Ms. New Booty” that not only endeavors to capitalize on hip-hop’s obsession with producing as many songs about strippers as possible in a calendar year, but goes so far as to recruit the Ying Yang Twins to—wait for it—whisper their verse. Yup. So Bubba Sparxxx, who was widely recognized for shoving the geographical boundaries of hip-hop into new territory (and whose tour with Blink-182 showed a similarly lively interest in ignoring the game’s traditional rules), has been reduced to shoveling out a de facto “Whisper Song” sequel. One of the more cunning linguists of our time spends the vast bulk of his single listening to somebody go “Booty booty booty booty rockin’ everywhere.” I guess it’s a sell-out, but this is hip-hop—is that even an effective slam?
To his credit, Sparxxx cops to this being the plan all along. “I’m getting sick of banjos and fiddle shit,” Sparxxx rhymes on the atmospheric “Ain’t Life Grand”, adding that “now I’m feeling brand new, it’s time to reinvent again, win again”. But Sparxxx is in the pop crossfire—OK, maybe another album of country-fried novelty would have carried a stench of formula he’d have never washed off, but the stuff he’s replaced it with is hardly reinvented. These are rote, forgettable beats without any geographical limitations, sure, but without any juice, either. So without the banjo and fiddle shit, the beats become rote, the ingenious novelty becomes another record with medieval fontography that’ll start rushing into the used-CD stores by July. (It should be noted that Sparxxx’s ability to rattle off tongue-twisting verses like a heavily accented tommy gun hasn’t faded—“This Augusta National, that’s Putt-Putt,” he rhymes, in one of the only golf verses hip-hop has ever produced.)
There’s no question that Timbaland served as Dre to Sparxxx’s Eminem on the past few records, and his glaring absence is the most notable thing about the credits (the album was executive produced by Big Boi, but it’s hard to imagine he even stopped by the studio). Without Tim, Sparxxx is evidently powerless, like Maverick without Iceman, or Garfunkel without Simon. Sparxxx does pull off “As the Rim Spins”, which has nice old-school leanings, and “Ain’t Life Grand”, a moody tale about the light and dark sides of having a big-shot hit. But though that sentiment is genuine, even melancholy, it’s put in the context of an album in which he’s given up the very thing that set him so far apart from the pack. And his words don’t convey the overblown cockiness required of hip-hop, but the self-awareness of a guy who might well know his spotlight is dimming.