I guess Definitive Jux can’t knock ‘em all all out the park this year. Hot off the label’s resurgence thanks to head honcho (and about-time veteran) El-P’s best album of his career (and the year, in case you didn’t know) and a pretty great album that nobody thought Aesop Rock had in him, Rob Sonic’s sophomore release kinda got lost in the press shuffle between Aesop’s release and tour and Hangar 18’s new, terrible, record. A good example of how much Sonic seems to care about this album is that he was hocking it at Aesop’s shows a good month or so before its release date. Maybe he knew he screwed it up, happy to delegate the record to stop-gap status. And really, there’s really no other way to describe the record than a gigante disappointment.
I had really high hopes for Sabotage Gigante. Sonic’s debut, Telicatessen was an exciting record, one that I’ll still argue is one of the best hip-hop records by a New Yorker about New York since Illmatic. Telicatessen was pure post-9/11 dread buried under Sonic’s unique Bomb Squad meets heavy metal synth-thump. Critics were quick to complain that, lyrically, Sonic was an Aesop clone, trying to one-up the wordsmith with even weirder stream-of-consciousness. They were completely wrong, of course, failing to (or refusing to) follow Sonic’s schizo lyrical head-path. Sonic’s wordplay is part backpacker part gritty, urban Philip K, and the only real similarity with Aes is that both write lyrics just as fun to read as to hear.
Most of Sabotage has Sonic elaborating on a line from Telicatessen’s “Former Future”: “Name four things that you paid for without knowing it during the Bush campaign.” Furthermore, on Telicatessen’s “Dyslexia”, Sonic adapts the track’s symptoms, and makes some metaphor about America fucking itself over by intoning “sex backwards….” Most of that weird humor of Telicatessen is missing from Sabotage. Sonic’s political forays worked on Telicatessen because Sonic was still inwardly focused, unable to hone his Bush vitriol for too long before bemoaning mortgage payments and his own personal fate. Now he’s gone all global on us, and frankly, it doesn’t fit him. The usually clever Sonic, now just sounds weighed down (no pun) by the all-encompassing external forces of the world. The press release for the record says it’s his angry political record, but Sonic is never able to connect any overarching themes beyond the de rigueur “consumerism is evil war sucks no blood for oil” mantra. He doesn’t sound angry as much as kind of boring. The man that absorbed the tales of those around him at the local deli of Telicatessen is no longer listening, but is now standing on the soapbox.
Sonic doesn’t even ride the beat like he use to. His flow’s gotten languid and more precise, like he really wants to make sure you hear every syllable. When he does try to speed it up, like on “Ready Aim Shoot”, it’s just embarrassing – his mush-mouthed delivery can barely keep up with the beat. In a perplexing move, the pre-release “single”, “Brand New Vandals”, which appeared on the Definitive Swim compilation, is redone for the record with re-recorded vocals which sound horrible. The urgency of the original take is now ruined by cheesy flange effects and chopped up lyrical couplets. My biggest qualm with how Sonic recorded Sabotage is that it sounds like he didn’t have the dexterity to spit a whole song in one take, so he chopped his verses into like, 10 separate tracks, one for each couplet. I mean, dude’s a big guy, hefty for sure, but B.I.G. and Pun could still spit their stuff like guys half their size, so that’s no excuse.
At the boards, Sonic has proven before that he’s got some skills at the old school boom-bap meets new school (i.e. El-P influenced) aural-dystopia (“Super Ball”, Aesop’s “Winner Takes All”, “Death Vendor”), but Sabotage is evidence that the dude needs to branch out a bit. He uses the same damn hard drum sound on nearly every track, not leaving much room for emotional variance (yes, drums carry emotion). And if I sound hard, it’s because Sonic is a really talented guy, who I really want to think deserves to have his record get more label publicity time than Junk Science.
But damn it Rob if you’re not helping me.