It takes a certain kind of breed to ride the bus, especially when the driver’s only map is his maniacal, stream-of-consciousness flow and a penchant for stringing together lyrical couplets from the zeitgeist. But, as Tom Wolfe said to describe the LSD-induced antics of the Merry Pranksters, a group who traveled America freaking out the establishment in his psychedelic tome The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, “You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus”. And if you’re on the bus, you have to hang on for dear life. Busdriver forces you to do exactly that, going off on absurd tangents, whipping around this obtuse album blindfolded, wildly veering from rap’s standard course.
When he says his album will sell more copies in France, he acknowledges his limited fan base. His “prog rap” is like how jazz sounded to the ears of most Americans—too strange. U.K. grime has yet to find its footing in North America, so it’s hard to believe an emcee claiming to be “the first black astronaut to walk the bare moon” will be anything but the hero of the pseudo-intellectual hipster crowd.
On “Reheated Pop!” he attacks the posthumous success of rapper’s corpses. The Omid-produced track barrels through space and time, deftly defying gravity with a shuffling drumbeat as Busdriver asks how an emcee’s death has become a label’s greatest cash cow. His gut-busting verses are rife with references to Hello Kitty, winged gnomes, and Dick Clark’s head and often leave you doubled over in laughter or, alternatively, dumbfounded.
He gleans some knowledge from physicist Stephen Hawking for “Wormholes” and takes a stab at his hipster audience on the fast-paced rhythm of “Befriend the Friendless Friendster”. And he does it all with moxie, spinning complex but perhaps meaningless narratives. “Happiness (‘s Unit of measurement)” finds him explaining that Fear of a Black Tangent doesn’t mean white kids can’t listen to it. It’s just a spoof on the Public Enemy album Fear of a Black Planet.
Enlisting his own crew of Merry Pranksters, Busdriver requisitions producers with names every bit as mysterious and eclectic as their unorthodox styles. They include Daedelus, Thavius Beck, Omid, Paris Zax, and some cat named Danger Mouse. Their contributions combine to form something mainstream audiences rarely embrace, an album that ventures way out past the fringe with no intent to return. It’s a rap space odyssey; the sound charts new and unexplored territories, latching onto Busdriver’s unorthodox delivery and pace, producing tracks that range from the overpoweringly hallucinogenic “Low Flying Books” to the narcoleptic nursery rhyme “Lefty’s Lament”.
Busdriver is either an emcee from the future or the future of the emcee. Not the first prog rapper to appear, he dons the aesthetic of an MF Doom or Kool Keith, two guys who broke barriers, winning over fringe audiences in droves. Fear of a Black Tangent is a genuine freak-out. Elements of jazz, downtempo, old school/futuristic hip-hop, and psychedelia weave in and out of the album. At times, it’s sheer hilarity. At others, excruciatingly tedious. What you always get, however, is the unexpected, and that’s the music I like to hum in my eardrums. He makes lyrical connections where none seem to exist. He stops abruptly, then loops back with an inspired dose self-indulgence, sarcasm, and acid logic, making Fear of a Black Tangent a trip that you’ll wanna buy a ticket to ride.
// Notes from the Road
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