“Whimsical” isn’t a word often ascribed to hip-hop, partially due to the fact that so few rappers succeed in bringing whimsy that doesn’t come off as painfully corny. If there’s a success story to be found in this regard, it’s Pigeon John, who for more than a decade has made consistently good aw-shucks-just-playin’ hip-hop. Case in point: the chorus to 2006’s “Do the Pigeon” ended with the couplet “Someone do the pigeon (yeah, yeah!) / I know it gets rough, but you gotta let the sun shine in just a smidgen.”
“Nostalgic” is another adjective seldom used for rap records, and when it is, the nostalgia is often for grimy streets and the allure of the game, the aural equivalent of The Wire‘s Marlo, bored with the lethargy of the high life, reclaiming his corner. But John’s nostalgia is entirely different. His is for memories of a lazily sinking California sun, red cups of liquor, poolside afternoons with friends, going to the movies, eating pizza, and getting girls’ numbers. It’s an adolescent longing extended into adulthood, and it purposefully trades a Realness-with-a-capital-r scowl for a vision of Los Angeles as an endless pre-rap-beef summertime party. This alternate universe post-G-funk, pre-G-Unit sound has been John’s wheelhouse for a while; his excellent And the Summertime Pool Party, which featured “Do the Pigeon”, is old enough to be learning long division. In John’s universe, though, the pool party never really ended, even if half the crowd has passed out or gone home. There’s still a bottle or two somewhere in the house. There’s still a club to go to. There are still stories to tell, and Encino Man packs in a dozen of these mostly feel-good jams.
As a title, Encino Man works both as a shout-out to John’s beloved L.A. and a wink toward vintage coolness — the album is a virtual love letter to ’70s and ’80s pop radio. “What Are We Gonna Do” is riff-heavy surf rock. “Oh Yeah” is aware enough of its influences to name drop Joan Jett. “Dave the Dope Fiend” is Beatlesesque, John’s version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Classic funk, R&B, and hip-hop influences collide throughout. It’s John’s old territory, but with a bit of refinement, a pop-centered smoothness borne out of experience, and a long partnership with Hervé Salters of General Elektriks that makes Encino Man sound well-worn and fresh at the same time.
Lyrically, some of the album is undoubtedly mindless and lacking in effort. “Champagne on My Shoes” relies on lazy couplets. “Go Shopping” is underwhelming. The chorus of “Boomerang” mixes metaphors, creating mental miscues if you think about it too casually. But neither fans of John nor this particular strain of music will be deterred by occasional hints of mindlessness. Mindlessness is half of the point of the party. And there are great moments. “I Believe It” and “All the Roads” are wonderfully effortless with lyrics that are heartfelt but not overthought. Both tracks could play on any radio station in the country. “All the Roads” in particular wears universality as its armor. It’s full of homespun simplicity and hard-won truths that culminate in a resolute toast to love: “It don’t matter where you’re facing, all the roads lead back to you.”
Throughout Encino Man, John sounds almost zen, like he feels no pressure to prove anything to anyone, for better and worse. His voice is surprisingly versatile when he has a mind to stretch it, but stretching too far and paying too much mind isn’t his thing. He’d rather conjure an image of cruising down the PCH on the way to a barbecue in Long Beach because, for John, the party isn’t over. Not by a long shot.