Taste the Secret, the off-kilter fast-food-themed concept album from underground hip-hop cult favorites Ugly Duckling, gained them new fans and well-deserved accolades but also put the group in an interesting position. There are only two real ways to follow up such a concept album, chronicling the rivalry between the Meatshack and the spacey Veggie Hut: drift deeper into the realm of the absurd, and risk losing relevance, or pull everything back together with an undeniably tight, sharp return to form. The second is probably the smarter choice, but also the harder one to execute successfully; however, with Bang for the Buck, the new LP from the trio of Andy, Dizzy, and Young Einstein, Ugly Duckling not only attempts but succeeds wonderfully on this second path. As a matter of fact, it just might be their best album yet.
Ugly Duckling have been making cheerful, quirky music for some time now, mixing jazz-flavored production with enthusiastic lyricism and nostalgia for hip-hop’s golden age. The two rappers, Adam and Dizzy, work well enough together: while they lean towards likeably-silly wordplay (“You must be high like a nerd’s IQ”, “I got bang for the buck like a prostitute”, “Cats jock like Germans on Hasselhoff”), they flow eagerly and well throughout. The MC showcase, ostensible battle track “Andy vs. Dizzy”, pairs some of their best rapping yet with a constantly-shifting beat: Andy spits nimbly and dexterously over an uptempo guitar sprint, before Dizzy slows it all down and goes crazy-slow-dope. In attitude and general appeal, they sound like the Beastie Boys if the Beastie Boys were still relevant or interesting.
Musically, opener “Bang for the Buck” pops off almost immediately with energetic rapping from the two MCs over a spare funk bassline, and the momentum doesn’t drop throughout. DJ Young Einstein’s bright, bouncy production is masterful: the beats often change, sometimes multiple times, within individual tracks, but they’re still all strong and appealing. The jaunty acoustic riffage and falsetto “whoo"s of “The Breakdown” are absolutely irresistible; “Left Behind” is all thick, rambly-dirty-funky piano. “Let It Out” sounds like a madcap sprint through a cel-shaded funhouse punctuated by savvy, sharp blasts of jazz, and “Slow the Flow!”, one of the best songs here, is a great definition of “saunter”. Not the perfect definition of “saunter”, because it is not a complete summary of the word’s every connotation: rather, it’s a beautiful definition, an encapsulation of the very best, warmest aspects of the word, woozy little horns lisping “saunter-saunter-saunter” while a background woodwind goes absolutely freak-out giddy. “The End of Time” ends it all on an artistic high note: the beat here is probably the best, a swirl of dramatically upbeat swooping celestial strings and wild reckless tinkly slurs of cosmic bells that brilliantly radiates atmosphere and makes you feel like you’re gently floating through the majestic universe. It has the feeling of the climax of a giant Epcot attraction, of riding slowly through Spaceship Earth while the people of the future wave and Walter Cronkite’s crisp words crackle softly into your ears. Andy and Dizzy are at their deepest here as well, meditating on life, time, and philosophy while the music thumps-thumps on. Bang for the Buck is happy-day music, in that it provides a fitting soundtrack to the happiest of days and can actually make lesser days that much happier. This is music for playing at maximum volume in that busted-up old car, for wearing sunglasses to, for head-bobbing and feeling badass.
All of the songs are perfectly enjoyable on their own, but taken as a whole they blend together and become a wonderful funk mood piece (the mood here being “almost unbearably fun”). In fact, if smiles were music, they might sound a lot like this album. Mischievous, silly, happy smiles.
Ugly Duckling will not change your life, and they don’t try to (I think it’s better that way). But they will take at least 45 minutes of it, and make those 45 minutes a hell of a lot more fun and enjoyable. Is that not enough?