It’s a common complaint that mainstream rap isn’t worth the time of day because it’s all the same. Those thugs only ever seem to sing about shooting guns, fucking bitches, snorting drugs and throwing money around, so if you’ve heard even one song you’ve heard them all. It’s the underground rap you need to be listening to, they’ll insist; that’s where the visionaries, the freaks, the weirdos and all manner of counter-cultural-types scurried off to when rap became popular and in doing so compromised everything the genre stood for.
They’re not necessarily wrong that popular rap is suffering from a lack of imagination, but they’re also far from right when they trumpet the underground as some kind of creative haven. The sin of sameness is the great sin of art: it’s only the very, very rare artist — the .00001 percent alone — that demands attention while the rest are either derivative, boring, so weird as to be unrelatable or simply trite. Being independent might mean that the artist is capable of following their own muse, but so often the muse of the untalented is either a very uninteresting personal voice or other boring artists. The vast majority of tracks on All Your Friend’s Friends, a collaborative album featuring 19 tracks from over 20 major underground artists, only goes on to prove this.
There’s variety enough in the sounds, here. The Chicarones offer by far the most upbeat and the poppiest number on the album with the yearning and optimistic “Real Life Game”, the stumbling, drunken mooning of Barfly represents a darker end of the spectrum, Heddie Leone’s slinky “Good Girl Bad Girl” gives the album a much needed libido and Free Whiskey very nearly lends the album a sense of humor with “Pizza Chef”. The problem is that even on the most optimistic track the attitude of the album is overwhelmingly confrontational: every artist seems so desperate to prove themselves that they assume the listener’s an enemy to be subdued or impressed; the lyrics almost entirely concern the merits of hard work, the singer’s talent (which is, undeniably, superior to every talent), a vague spirituality (God’s love, God’s plan and God’s judgment are favorite topics) that often comes with a whiff of fire and brimstone, or some combination of the three (“My Shady Gangster Uncle Kiaser” features more than a few sexual allusions to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that cap off by suggesting singer Xperience has, given his work, achieved the status of godhood). There’s as much nut-flexing here as you’ll hear on any Top 40 rap song, except now the measuring stick isn’t wealth, it’s talent.
You can hear it in the cadence of just about every singer, in the way that they’re so busy flying through their raps that they don’t stop to enunciate or let their thoughts connect. No one is quite as offensive in this regards as the so-called Saint of Everyday Failures, whose “Simplify Complex” is the most obnoxious and self-congratulatory send-up to talent (the creator’s in particular) ever imagined. Saint’s so eager to tell everyone how great he can’t stop when he starts rapping and give anyone a chance to actually listen to what he has to say…perhaps because he knows he’s not really saying anything. You might find yourself groaning involuntarily when he raps “Celebrities are robots programmed to make you hate your life / Vampiric vicarious Virgin Mary Vana White,” as if the hostess of Wheel of Fortune was somehow emblematic of everything wrong with American culture.
The moronically titled “Ashen Embers” is little more than a scree about how God has chosen Xperience to rap to us about the good word and it’s no less dour than it sounds. In fact, every track Xperience touches bears the mark of his smug arrogance and simplistic spirituality: he’s like a street preacher, eager to condemn everyone else in a desperate attempt to prove just how righteous he is. He’s not the only one marked with such a humorless streak — Smoke and Simple’s “Welcome to Forever” is such a pathetic plea for global solidarity and complaint about nihilism that any apocalypse they might protest would be preferable, would be certainly be more enjoyable — but he’s the most aggressive about it and the most ubiquitous, with a credit on four of these 19 songs. One has to wonder if it wasn’t his influence that sapped “Pizza Chef”, the one song on the album that strives to add some humor and snark to the proceedings, of its energy, saddled it with a slow and morose tempo and convinced Free Whiskey to whine with a self-conscious awareness about things he should have been gleefully mocking. Or maybe it was Saint, since there’s another asinine reference to Vanna White in this song.
For a sampler meant to represent the range of a genre and the variety of more obscure artist, All Your Friend’s Friends fails spectacularly. There are, again, notable and listenable exceptions but they only really serve to emphasize just how joyless and repetitive the rest of the collaborators are. Superficially, there’s some difference between this kind of alternative rap and more popular artists, yes, but the attitudes that drive both are the same and so the results are similarly limited and disappointing. There’s probably a reason you’re not associating with your friend’s friends…