[18 July 2014]
Bubba Sparxxx has always had competing tendencies in his music. On the one hand, as the first white Southern rapper with any national visibility, he seemed possessed with bringing his unique point of view to an industry that wasn’t all that interested in what a chubby white dude from rural Georgia had to say. On the other hand, he wanted to make money and was unequivocal about his desire to sell records—his first single, “Ugly”, included the line “Just let me sell 50 million, then I’ll call it quits.” His debut, Dark Days, Bright Nights, straddled the line between commercial success and hood-repping remarkably well, but his critically acclaimed sophomore album Deliverance undersold, becoming one of the criminally unheard albums of its generation and causing Bubba to be unceremoniously dumped by Interscope.
His third album, 2006’s critically divisive The Charm, unabashedly aimed for sales, which it got thanks largely to the Ying Yang Twins on “Miss New Booty”. Bubba, for his part, responded to the critics who hated that record with a shrug, saying hilariously that his family “couldn’t eat critical acclaim”. The Charm showed Bubba as a realist, able to adapt to a changing scene and play down the country aspect of his sound to sell records to a broad audience, going as far as to rap, “y’all gettin sick of banjos and fiddle shit”.
Yes, Bubba is a realist, and while he eschewed banjos and fiddles for a minute, he knows that his commercial viability in the broader hip hop world these days is limited. He has no Timbaland, no Ying Yang Twins, no Killer Mike to bridge that gap, and he seems resigned to the fact that aging white rappers aren’t exactly in high demand. So, he’s leaning into the country thing for all he’s worth, bringing back the banjos and fiddles along with a wood block, harmonica, and a cooler of Natty Ice for good measure, in the hopes of finding a profitable long term lane. Hey, it worked for Kid Rock.
Things you can learn about Bubba from Made on McCosh Mill Road: he’s from the country, loves women, cars, and booze, and isn’t afraid to, um, have intercourse with women that you associate with. An identical list could have been made off of Dark Days, Bright Nights, but that album also taught us some other tidbits, such as, Bubba’s attempts at weight loss via starvation and his fear of flying. The record even opened with a frank admission of fear and weakness. There’s nothing so vulnerable to be found on Made on McCosh Mill Road, and nothing half as interesting. The first four images are, in order: cold beer, a hot country girl, John Deere, and “big cousin Earl”. 30 seconds in, you can tell that the country influence which existed casually and naturally in Bubba’s drawl and skits and references in his early career has turned to near-full-blown Cowboy Troy pandering.
Take, for example, the woodpecker clack, metronome beat, and, yes, boiiiing spring of “Prolly Right”, which all scream novelty. Or, take the meandering banjo and fiddle on “Lock Dem Hubs”, which seem to exist only to up its country quotient. “Better Be Country” sounds like a vintage Basement Beats track, a leftover from Nelly’s Country Grammar sessions—Bubba even throws in a not-too-subtle “I know another one in Montana, not Hannah / and she’s totally in tune with my grammah.” Everywhere, Bubba has stamped his sound with a Georgia’s Macon Me Crazy bumper sticker and watered down his lyrics to rural genericisms and overwrought philosophizing. “Pay Attention” in particular has some hard-to-follow nuggets of wisdom. Bubba segues from how his mother and brother might kick your ass to “pay attention to the mud hole, your truck will get so stuck / that you just abandon it, now wouldn’t that just be your luck”. What?
There are a handful of lines which offer interestingly contoured sketches of rural life. “The cats in my yard is seven generations” or “No pizza man / we don’t even get to order,” but generally Bubba sticks to imagery that you could find on any stock photo web site by searching only the word “country”. The old introspective Bubba tries to rear his head only once, detailing his personal struggles on “Past is Practice”. That track might have worked had it not included the cartoonishly hyper-modulated chorus sung by JJ Lawhorn, who sounds like a parody of a parody of a country singer. It’s easy to throw shade at the Ying Yang Twins for making endless iterations of “The Whisper Song”, but they were no more obnoxious vocally; they were just angled at a different audience.
When Bubba first hit the scene, people were still asking about the viability of white rappers. Eminem was widely considered a flash in the pan, and memories of Vanilla Ice still haunted popular music. It was an inane question, of course, but it served Bubba well to work as the underdog, spitting anti-industry raps that deconstructed the tropes of the mainstream. His first single threw up an emphatic middle finger at the way fame was popularly portrayed: “let’s be honest, none of us will ever date a model.” Now, Macklemore is a thing, and it seems Bubba is trying to recast himself as an outsider, confusingly, over the country rap that he helped create. “OK Then” (one of the highlights here) centers on Bubba being “too country for some, not country enough for others” and ends with someone saying that you can’t mix country and rap. It’s an odd inclusion for the guy who pioneered the genre and has seen it spread through everyone from The Lacs and Nappy Roots to Yelawolf and Big K.R.I.T., and it adds another confusing aspect to the record.
The biggest issue with Made on McCosh Mill Road, though, is that on the whole it sounds wan and uninspired. Seven years passed between The Charm and 2013’s Pain Management, and then barely eight months to this album. It seems like Bubba’s best ideas and guest spots were used up on Pain Management, a record that was was fun and unexpected, if occasionally uneven. “Bangin” was fierce, with Bubba hunkering down and venting long-stewing thoughts, throwing in rock and country willy-nilly. “Wicked World” found Bubba in full storytelling mode. “Hairdresser Hot” was a more fun version of “Country Girls”. On Pain Management, he rapped frankly about his own career: “We all know I’m washed up / we all know it’s been over,” and addressed Timbaland’s exit from his life with lines spit from the inside of a raw wound. Compared to that, the concepts on Made on McCosh Mill Road sound like he hasn’t sat on them very long, and a hundred layers of Georgia mud can’t hide their thinness, not only in content but in play time: ten tracks over 37 minutes, all angling to be The Charm for a narrower regional audience, without an experimental bit or skit or piece of connective tissue to hold them together as an album.
During his long hiatus, Bubba actually recorded a lot of music for the label eOne, but he and the label couldn’t agree on a direction, so he left for Average Joes Entertainment, which released Pain Management. He said in an interview with Hip Hop DX back in 2013 that he was “still going to do an album with [eOne] later this year to fulfill my contractual obligation”, and perhaps that both explains the shortened time span between albums and the muddled, uninspired sound of the record. If that is the case—that Made on McCosh Mill Road is an obligation record—then maybe it’s best to not think of it in comparison with Bubba’s other works, or contemporary albums in the same vein, at all. Maybe it’s best to compare it to Neil Young’s Landing on Water or Dylan’s New Morning: a way of clearing the air so the artist can move on to bigger and better things. At least, those of us who still bump Deliverance (and, okay, The Charm) every once in a while can hope so.