Nothing about the music on Made Like Us makes one think of Minneapolis, at least, not any more than other music might. There’s a hint of chill, of the bleak Midwestern sky in the mechanical crackle on “First Track” and the middle-aged lament of “And the Camera”. These subtler inferences are forgotten by the time a Brazilian guitar riff opens the last track into a lush and global lounge beat.
Paper Tiger’s Minnesotan identity is explicit, though, as soon as one glances at the album itself. The state’s silhouette appears on the cover and on the small poster folded into the inner pocket, and the elongated title itself smacks of local pride: “No Matter How Hard They Try They Will Never Be Made Like Us”. A closer look and one sees that the producer is a member of Doomtree, a local hip-hop collective, who’s had a hand in most of the group’s major accomplishments. He touts himself as a visual artist with eclectic, open-minded tastes.
Once the facts are known, it’s hard to place Made Like Us any other way. Doomtree compatriot Dessa makes a couple of appearances as a vocalist, which feel no less significant for the fact that the host tracks are some of the weakest on the album. “Make Make 2” lines up inevitably with “MAke-MAke”, the fourth track from Paper Tiger’s False Hopes EP and part of a collective-wide effort to spread the Doomtree name. The connection is apparently nominal — unfortunately, the sequel suffers in the comparison.
Made Like Us also shows signs of Paper Tiger’s graphic leanings, to more flattering effect. As a whole, the album favors smooth, grainy orchestrations and careful collage. The rhythms are agreeable and precise. The samples are pretty and heartfelt. The same can be said for much of the original material. When the producer puts the pieces together just right, the result is an eye-catching kind of regularity with a dark, warm texture often enhanced by a nostalgic crackling. “The Bully Plank” twists and obstructs four bars of piano into a sleek and muscular hip hop beat interlaced with a chorus singing “don’t know why I love you”. Paper Tiger exhibits an affinity for piano and other strings like guitars and violins; his triumph in this area, and perhaps on the album as a whole is the aforementioned closer “Cigana”, a mix with an addictive ambience and a delight for fans of Brazilian music.
The album usually strikes a careful balance between melodrama and elegy, staggering occasionally when a synth asserts itself with a little to much sincerity or the vocals come wailing over the beat like an ambitious karaoke singer. On the best songs the spoken parts practice misdirection, foil rather than jockey to the production. “5360”, for example, creates a marvelous sense of place by layering a rambling, conversational speech over a hammering beat.
Most of the album isn’t going to turn heads — but it may sway them. With a couple of brief detours, Paper Tiger delivers 40 minutes of playful homogeneity. Don’t let the Doomtree name fool you: Made Like Us is a far cry from hard rap and its capable manipulation of atmosphere and effect isn’t necessarily Minnesotan.