[10 May 2012]
If you’re a fan of underground rap, you already know what to expect from Bigg Jus. He made his name MCing alongside El-P in what was quite possibly the most lyrically dense rap crew of all time, Company Flow. Co-Flo was also certainly among the greatest underground rap groups ever, changing the landscape of late ‘90s hip-hop with their first and only LP, Funcrusher Plus. Bigg Jus then struck out as a solo artist, but fell off the radar after 2005.
Now he’s back, as angry and as erudite as ever. Few rappers would have the audacity to start a song with the lyric “Chicago school of economics” and fewer still could pull it off. What makes it work for Jus, though, is the authenticity of his rage. Bigg Jus may be socially conscious but he’s not in a class with alt rappers like Mos Def and Talib Kweli—his music is so bleak and so violent as to be apocalyptic.
Before proceeding to a proper review, however, I have to get something a little unpleasant out of the way. There is nothing that interests me less than turning my reviews into a political soap box, but complacency is not an option where things like religious and racial tolerance are at stake and I am concerned that the track “Samson Op-Ed”, about the Israel-Palestine conflict, comes uncomfortably close to anti-semitism. I’d like to give Bigg Jus the benefit of the doubt, because I think his aim was to point out irony and hypocrisy of some of the Israeli government’s actions. That’s legit, but he does a poor job clarifying whether he thinks the government of Israel has misused Jewish religious ideas or whether he is indeed attacking the religion itself. Just being unclear on this is irresponsible.
Ok, phew. Can we talk about music now?
Machines That Make Civilization Fun is not easy listening. In fact, it’s likely to give you a headache, but it’s worth the pain Lyrically, the album is as tough as they come, crushing an overwhelming number of ideas into Jus’s cramped polyrhythms. Musically, asymmetrical loops sputter over flurries of sampled newscasts, announcements and soundbites.Only the most astute listeners will be able trace out among the rubble the obliterated boundaries between what might have been verse and chorus.
Among the standout tracks is the album’s single “Black Roses”, built on a short-circuiting beat and a relentless inanimate screech. The production is an ingenious trick perfected by Company Flow when the loop sounds too simple and too brief, and several layers of instrumentation seem to be missing. This should sound unfinished, but instead, the tension twists tighter and tighter, refusing to resolve to chorus or coda.
Other lyrical highpoints include “Advanced Lightbody Activation” and “Food For Thought (Shit Sandwiches)”. The latter is, in part, a scalding critique of the politics of class and food. So is “Empire Is a Bitch (Fake Arab Spring Mix)”, in which Jus notes astutely that “being broke is highly fucking uncivilized.”
Surprisingly, however, the album’s best moments come not from the rapping but from the production. Instrumentals like “Hard Times For New Lovers” do as much to bring the message home as the words do—writing the doomed beauty of revolutionary romance in a post-modern sampler collage, it’s a love song interrupted by an army of police in riot gear. Meanwhile, on the title song, it’s clear that the disjointed spasms of torpid bass and hushed, frantic, nearly arhythmic drums aren’t just there to support the vocals.
Of course, the words and music aren’t separate beasts, they’re deeply intertwined. The nod to Jamaican millenarianism on “Redemption Sound Dub” draws on dancehall in surprisingly subtle ways in tone and lyrics, while the claustrophobic “Polymathmatics” closes in on itself in a polyrhythmic beat that wavers on the edge of chaos. There are loops and beats on this record but it never grooves, not even for a second. This record intends to jolt you awake. Hence the beats that perpetually interrupt one another. Hence the impossibly complex time signatures. Hence the words that refuse to sit neatly on drums and bass beneath them. Hence the lyrics that almost never repeat.
Machines That Make Civilization Fun could be the soundtrack of the last 18 months. It bleeds Occupy Wall Street, pepper spray and all. It smells of the horrific fallout from 2011’s Middle Eastern revolutions, and screams the crippling paranoia of corporate despotism. It’s hard to gauge now how dated it will sound in five or ten years, but at this moment, it’s the neurotic and deafening sound of a civilization whose machines are beginning to break down, and it sounds terrifyingly familiar.