Big B has released his sixth studio album, and the most pressing question is this: How did a cut track end up the best thing about it?
Big B has been around a surprisingly long time, a fact for which he doesn't get enough credit. When his first album, High Class White Trash, came out way back in January 2004, John Kerry had high hopes of being elected President. In January 2004, American Idol was poised to make a megastar out of each winner it crowned. In January 2004, Facebook didn't exist.
How things have changed. We're two and a half presidential terms down the road. Idol winners are being quietly released from their record deals as quickly as new winners can be announced. Facebook now has the same population as Africa, and the government is using it to gather information about you.
Except for Big B, born Byran Mahoney. He's still working as hard as he was way back in the mid-aughts, trying to build a grassroots rap career based on his big personality and unorthodox style. The only difference is that these days he's focusing less on the fan base that’s likely to have a Hatchetman tattoo and more on the fan base that's likely to own a surfboard.
Back in May, B released "Progress", a track left off of Fool’s Gold, his sixth studio album. He called it one of "these leftover tracks that didn’t fit in anywhere on the album" but was still a great song. Indeed, "Progress" is a great song with a wicked flute melody that complements a lush, organic beat. On it, B raps aggressively, mixing cadences, interacting with the beat, playing with his flow. The presence of Chali 2Na of Jurassic 5 fame made B step up his game, and it's worth noting that he pulls it off. Unfortunately, it's also worth noting that B was right on both accounts: "Progress" doesn't fit anywhere on Fool's Gold because it's too good. It's better than any track on the album.
B has never been a technically minded rapper, but early in his career he covered for that with production and personality, using bigger, faster beats and a solid sense of humor. Listening to early tracks like "Tweakers", B was downright goofy, nonchalantly comparing crackheads to Super Chicken. At times he rapped hard, and both the effort and playfulness were endearing. Fool's Gold tries for a more midtempo, relaxed flow, a continuation of the SoCal acoustic vibe that snuck into his music around the time of American Underdog. However, a relaxed flow only accentuates the weakness of many of his rhymes, the goofiness of which has mostly been replaced with earnestness, the sly bombast replaced with generic attempts at feel-good party jams. Absent from Fool's Gold are the lush, organic beats and rapid-fire rhymes of "Progress" or the left-field fun of "Tweakers". Instead, B's approach feels staid and self-serious.
Take “Ride Like A Rebel", a Slightly Stoopid-featuring morality tale about armed robbery that’s more Froggy Fresh than The Game. It could be as fun as “Tweakers” if B didn’t seem to take it so seriously. The most serious track, though, is opener "On The Shelf", which finds B putting the music industry, and basically everyone else on Earth, on notice for prizing image above substance. He then spends the majority of Fool's Gold carrying guns, smoking weed, objectifying women, and driving a "low-low rollin' through the barrio." It's West Coast Rap Tropes 101 from a guy whose driver's license might actually say NV, not CA.
Still, "On the Shelf" might have worked if B had chosen a less dramatic beat and approached it the way he did "Progress" rather than a cliché-ridden political screed about "dubstep on a McDonald's commercial" and "little kids in the hood wearing skinny jeans and Vans." Juxtaposed with similarly themed but more eloquent raps from this year by Brother Ali and R.A. the Rugged Man, to name just two, makes the heavy-handedness of B’s approach all the more clear. His heart is in a good place, but his execution leaves much to be desired.
When B's not moralizing, he's trying to kick back, but the chill vibe is marred by cringe-worthy lines, like this selection from “West Coast Summer”: "I’ll buy you an Icee / We can chill in the AC watching TV / Listen to some slow jams on my MP3 / If you’re lucky I’ll make you an MVP / But we’ll just have to wait and see / But only for the summer." The most memorable line from creepy sex jam "Your House" is actually a line borrowed from Outkast’s "Hey Ya!". Add to that list lines lifted from "C.R.E.A.M." and "Get Low" and tossed into other songs and you see a confounding contradiction: though it rails against the music industry and quote-unquote fake rap, Fool's Gold comes off as a clumsy reggae-inflected love letter to the same music.
The real shame is that Big B has a gift to share, and occasionally it shines through, as on the surprisingly sweet "Hangovers With You", the adorable video for "Here Comes the Lightning", and, of course, on “Progress". His gift is just better represented by what was left on the cutting room floor than what ended up on the shelf.