The starting point for Canadian underground rapper Buck 65’s latest record is the year 1957. That was the year the Beat Generation emerged with On the Road and “Howl”. It was the year that Elvis unleashed “Jailhouse Rock” and rock ‘n’ roll music shot into the mainstream and it was the year that the first U.S. nuclear plant was opened. 1957 was also the year an Italian revolutionary movement called the Situationalist International was formed, which only is important insofar as it contributes the link that Buck 65 needs between then and now, and provides a serviceable title.
Situation isn’t really a record about 1957. It’s about nostalgia, but it’s also a characteristic reflection of the rapper’s view of our present time. It’s characteristic of Buck 65’s outlook that he highlights things that stay the same—an atmosphere of fear, e.g.—rather than the uncountable number of ways in which society has actually improved. And it’s an excuse for the rapper to filter his stories about Burt Reynolds-style cops and playground adventures through a new lens. Strange Famous, the record label that’s putting out the album in the U.S., may be the best home for Buck 65, since it’s run by Sage Francis, the Rhode Island MC whose sense of moral outrage Buck sometimes shares, along with a gruff, old school delivery that seems a concession to another similarity. They’re both white.
Situation‘s being sold as a return to “classic” hip-hop styling, but though he’s enlisted the help of former pupil Skratch Bastid as producer, the truth is that Buck 65’s aging has affected the exuberance of his music. Situation, though it occasionally spurts up into anger, is remarkably restrained. The mood is of reminiscence, occasional nostalgia, and wry cynicism—never outrage. If you want to draw parallels between the nuclear power-mongering government of the 1950s Buck 65 describes and today’s, he’s not going to make it overt for you. Take “Way Back When”, nostalgia rap without the sunny reminiscence. Instead, for Buck it’s boogeymen, dirty words, and getting in trouble from the teacher. The K-OS remix captures something of Pigeon John’s optimism with horns and a sing-together chorus, really improving on the original.
As usual, Buck shows a willingness to address political issues more usually swept under the rug. Sure, brazen sexuality’s not new to hip-hop, but Buck seems to relish the dirt, as when he discusses Bettie Page and shutterbug porn on “Shutterbuggin’” in a gravelly voice like a worn out Henry Rollins, or sex toys and police brutality on “Cop Shades” and “Spread ‘Em”. The outrage is all the more effective for just existing as sarcasm as it allows the rapper to invest more effort in creating memorable characters. “Ho-Boys” illustrates this well: over a more strident beat, Buck 65’s fuzzed out voice seems perfect to be describing with disdain the “outcasted bums” and dirty hipsters.
Here’s a problem with opening your record with the first line of “Howl”... when you spin off into your own verse (as Buck 65 does after one line), there’s no way your words are going to have the power of Ginsberg’s. While it’s true that Buck 65’s lyrics hold occasional wit and subtle wordplay, he mostly delivers straight eighth rhythms with little variation. Despite their intelligent and varied range of allusion, they mostly fail to capture the thrilling vivacity of the best hip-hop. Part of the trouble may be the restricted range of reference the artist allows himself. By purposefully restricting his scope to his constructed vision of 1957, he struggles to bring his characters to life for an audience that doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of the era. Not that Buck 65 does either, mind you.
If Situation ends up sounding somewhat austere, it might be due to the fact that Buck 65 habitually avoids easy samples or big choruses. If you’ve been following his career, this won’t be a surprise, but new listeners may be put off by the lack of mainstream accessibility. The closest he comes is on “The Outskirts”, with its pretty Spanish guitar sample turned right up. Hardcore fans will grumble about this as it sees the rapper in a relatively soft mood, especially when he goes all American Beauty, talking about the “complicated beauty of abandoned buildings and parking lots”. But it’s the anomaly. Most of the time, Buck 65 is most concerned with his subject matter. His beats and music is, compared to this, secondary and at times fails to really excite. That is the ultimate divisive fact, and will remain divisive the divisive fact, about Buck 65. Situation is a cool, collected set of songs from the veteran Canadian rapper, but you shouldn’t be expecting anything revolutionary—at least, not from the music.