“Our subject isn’t cool, but he fakes it anyway / He may not have a clue, and he may not have style / But everything he lacks, well he makes up in denial”
— The Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)”
This album has doom written all over it. The fact that Pennsylvania fratboy Asher Roth was discovered through MySpace should send shivers up your spine alone. Thankfully, this pasty, womanizing, privileged party boy has a little more talent than that “Chocolate Rain” dude. Yep, if you get enough virtual friends, the majors may one day drove up to your front door with a garbage truck full of cash advance and a list of label contacts.
When the truck stopped at Asher’s frat, he quickly put down his bong and started smoking the poles of myriad mainstream hip-hop artists, trying to get anyone with an established name involved in his debut record. YouTube is currently swamped with footage of Ash accosting the ear of anyone his label could put him in a room with. He’s seen grabbing dinner with Ludacris, getting Cee-Lo to bump his premasters in his car, and going so far as to tell Akon that he wrote the album with him in mind. However, from a single listen of Asleep in the Bread Aisle, it is blatantly obvious whom Roth actually had in mind when he dribbled this record, and that man is named after a candy coated chocolate.
As I join the thousands in accusing Asher of biting Slim Shady’s style, it is important to note that Roth is fed up with the constant comparisons he has drawn to Marshall Mathers since before his first single leaked. In a Skee TV interview, he tried to brush it off by saying, “There’s very few reference points for people to compare white rappers to. And since I talk from up here, you know what I mean, I’m making hip-hop music, and I’m a white kid, those are pretty much all the elements you really need to start comparing me to someone like Eminem, who is so successful in the mainstream. There’s very few white rappers.”
Fair enough, there haven’t been as many white rappers through rap history as there have been pretty much every other shade of humanity. But there has been Sage Francis, Lil’ Wyte, Buck 65, Brother Ali, House of Pain, Aesop Rock, Mad Child of Swollen Members, Vanilla Ice, the Beastie Boys, Sixtoo, Mike Skinner (a.k.a. The Streets), Bubba Sparxxx, Evidence of Dilated Peoples, Marky Mark, EL-P, Atmosphere’s Slug, Insane Clown Posse, Scroobius Pip, Kyprios, Paul Wall, MC Chris, Ugly Duckling, Haystak, MC Serch, Tom Green, Sole, MC 900 Foot Jesus, Cage, Jel, and many others. There are dozens of white rappers available for reference. The reason critics continue to compare Asher Roth to Marshall Mathers is not that Mathers is the only other white rapper. It is because, like Adverse of Dorian Three, Ash consistently sounds more like Eminem than any of the aforementioned Caucasian emcees, only without Em’s trademark intense lyricism and verbal dexterity.
Granted, Marshall is a misogynistic, homophobic sociopath that the world would be better off without, but he is a compelling storyteller and showman who battled through the ranks, built himself from the ground up, and earned his record sales. Asher Roth is more like the Lyte Funky Ones version of Slim Shady, a Johnny-on-the-spot hipster preppy with the right song at the right time to be handed a gold record and a token two album deal, then fade away into bad reality TV shows and “Where Are They Now” specials. Watching him struggle in interviews, in his best Ebonics, to explain the difference between himself and Em brings to mind the interview where Vanilla Ice miserably failed to explain the difference between the melody from “Ice Ice Baby” and the identical riff from Queen’s “Under Pressure”. The Asleep in the Bread Aisle preemptive strike “As I Em” does nothing to stop the bleeding.
Lyrically, Ash is clearly different from Em in a few key areas. Roth doesn’t appear to be a homophobic psychopath like Shady, aiming to be a likeable rather than scary. While Eminem made a habit of murdering his mother in every other track, Roth’s “His Dream” is a loving ode to the intellectual sacrifice his father made to put food on the table for his family. That beacon of parental honor is one of the album’s few highlights. Much of Asher Roth’s debut is dedicated to stupid stoner party and sex anthems. Em made the lyrical rape and murder of wives and girlfriends as pedestrian an activity as playing Grand Theft Auto, but it’s clear that Roth only wants to dink them. So there is that difference, and the fact that Roth can’t string together three sentences of a story.
The whole album is a string of references, jokes, and bad ideas, with nothing holding them together. The opening “Lark On My Go-Kart” sounds like Ash went to Wikipedia and clicked random links until he filled out the verses. Endorsing idiocy, “Blunt Cruisin'” is about driving around while hot-boxing a car, employing the word “homie” half a dozen times in the process. Equally moronic, his novelty hit “I Love College” is a pure preppy douchebag theme song on the level of LFO’s “Summer Girls” and, to a lesser extent, “Teachers Suck” by Tom Green. The intellectual level of that song is pretty well summed up by the line “I love college, I love drinking, I love women, and I love college” and its “chug chug chug” breakdown.
Jealousy-free hating aside, there are a couple things working in his favor. Surprisingly, Roth actually has something of a social conscience. He slips in some support for wearing condoms and frowns upon date rape in “I Love College” (of course, he said he learned those things, so it may be an accidental admission of guilt). “Sour Patch Kids” goes the farthest left, hitting on the theme of capitalist greed, with its profiteering wars, the growing divide between rich and poor, and the environmental damage it causes. While promoting the selfless act of donating, Roth truthfully says “Poverty is probably our biggest problem / And it ain’t gonna stop with Obama / To save the world, we must start at the bottom.” Coming from someone who wants to spend the rest of his life in college and has the means to do so, it is doubtful he would even know where to start looking for the bottom, but he demonstrates that he is at least vaguely aware of the world’s problems.
Furthermore, he avoids the typical hip-hop posturing by showing himself on the cover of his debut wearing a basic tracksuit, comically passed-out face down on a grocery store shelf. I’ve never seen him wear garish bling or showcase his gang tattoos (we’ll see if that lasts once the units start shifting). Instead, he is most often seen wearing a big bead necklace with a T-shirt, jeans, and simple grey hoodie. Unlike so many misguided rap egos, he appears to live according to his own message. His ability to laugh at himself betrays a humility that is virtually revolutionary in mainstream hip-hop today. Most of the album is focused on his sense of humor rather than politics, though, and that humor mainly revolves around the pedestrian activities of diddling “whores” (as he calls them) and getting high. Sadly, Roth is more Afroman than Redman, and even Afroman doesn’t want to be Afroman these days.
Fighting in his corner, newcomer Oren Yoel produced much of Asleep in the Bread Aisle, and damned if his beats aren’t full of choice samples and tight beats. There isn’t a moment of gun-clap grandstanding. Instead, Oren flows smooth grooves through a rich tapestry of funk, reggae, soul, and old school rap influences. Even as an unknown, Yoel’s beats surpass the repeat listening quality of Scott Storch and Eminem (who needs to stop making beats). Oren knew the world would be watching this album, and he delivered worthy instrumentals.
That said, his old school boom-bap flavored beats aren’t tremendously challenging either, and neither is anything coming out of Roth’s mouth. He only has the one bluntly political track, and it’s not exactly a revolution. Coming down in 2009 with Obama in the White House, it could be interpreted more as opportunistic than anything else. Plus, encouraging people to drive around while passing the dutchie on “Blunt Cruisin'” combined with his constant relegating of women to the status of sex objects in every other track works to undo much of the record’s social responsibility cred. All told, Asleep in the Bread Aisle is a brainless summer record with flashes of conscience. Roth can do better or, at the very least, discover his own voice.
Asshole or not, Eminem had to fight to get where he is, and Roth is a privileged trust fund kid who got his break by surfing the web on his parents’ dime. The way Roth speaks, coming from a position of power, undermines any effort towards “keeping it real” in its truest sense. It’s hard to take any of his vaguely positive messages seriously when we cannot trust that he is the one talking or if it was all a major label marketing plan pinned on some hapless honkey. If Ash can find a way to project his social positivity through a voice that is inarguably his own, if he can cut through his own bullshit and be real, Ash may be able to create something lasting next time around. We all know how novelty hit champions end up, and making something more notable than “I Love College” is his test.
Ash, buddy, you had better find and bring the real you soon. Asleep in the Bread Aisle is a piece of Dubble Bubble that loses its flavor before you’re done reading the comic. You don’t want to be remembered as a Bill S. Preston, Esquire. You want to stick around as a Ted “Theodore” Logan. Keep your head and up your game or lay face down, allow a major label to brutally penetrate your cashhole, and accept your role as this generation’s Vanilla Ice. It’s your choice.