Action Bronson takes the best ingredients of his acclaimed mixtapes, buffs them up with tighter production values and greater artistic focus, and produces his strongest statement yet.
Action Bronson was born to be a rapper. He’s got it all: confident vocal delivery, a loose flow that pulls back on the funk of his beats, and half-serious lyrics that still hit hard. His timbre is distinctive, raspy, and brash, like a somehow more laid-back Ghostface Killah. His latest record, Mr. Wonderful, takes the best ingredients of his acclaimed mixtapes -- soulful beats, straightforward arrangements, quick-hitting rhymes, production from frequent collaborators like the Alchemist and Party Supplies -- and buffs them with tighter production values and greater artistic focus for his strongest statement yet.
Like all good rap albums, Mr. Wonderful is all about the artist. It’s not confessional or over-serious, but Bronson nonetheless opens up about his world -- his opportunities, goals and lifestyle -- over the 13 tracks, buffered with layers of playful snark and boosted by elastic, funky production filled with crisp live pianos, organs, guitars, and drums. The smooth cool of it all is fuel for Bronson’s measured verses, a fresh cocktail of retro style and modern swagger with a splash of ironic attitude to bring it together. Bronson’s cognizant of the fact that he’s not reinventing rap on Mr. Wonderful; he’s just happy to display his talents in an elegant, unique package.
The first five tracks epitomize the aforementioned qualities, starting with the piano-led “Brand New Car” that ushers in both the album’s relentless groove and Bronson’s matter-of-fact braggadocio. “The Rising” drives Bronson’s raps with the funkiest beat on the record, while the Alchemist-produced “Terry” works as a hazy chill-out jam before Bronson’s propulsive ode to success “Actin’ Crazy” kicks in. “Falconry” ends the album’s strongest portion with a retro sample-based beat just goofy enough for Bronson to drop half-joke/half-vicious bars: “I was made like the beginning of Jurassic Park: / When they took the fucking blood from the mosquito with a dope needle / Then they shot it in a wild lion / 1983, I popped out holding an iron with a visor on.”
Things begin to fall apart on track six, the album’s lone interlude, titled “THUG LOVE STORY 2017 THE MUSICAL”. After Bronson’s precious momentum is dragged out from under him, the album continues with the rollicking soul song “City Boy Blues” on which Bronson regretfully doesn’t even rap -- a shame considering its spirited groove and high energy would have been perfect fodder for him. The missed opportunity is made more painful by its follow-up, a meandering slow jam titled “A Light in the Addict”, and late entry “Only in America”, which abandons the fluid soulful production of the record’s early tracks for sampled distorted guitars and a static rock beat, a style far less suited to Bronson’s relaxed delivery. Then there’s live track “The Passage”, the inclusion of which is inexplicable save for the crowd’s ego-boosting chants: “Bron-son! Bron-son!” If not for album highlights “Baby Blue” (in which Chance the Rapper gives a high-point feature verse) and closer “Easy Rider”, the album’s second half would seriously hinder the overall value of Mr. Wonderful.
Flaws and all, though, Mr. Wonderful is the musical manifestation of Bronson’s universe, from the shimmering soul of the first half to the prog-rock flavors of the second. Bronson’s methodology is spelled out on “Easy Rider”, where he glorifies personal freedom and worldly experiences, and the rest of the album mirrors that dedication to individualism. Mr. Wonderful may not come off as the sweeping epic its coda hints at, but it’s an entertaining and unique experience that only Bronson could give us. Few rap albums can be this different and still satisfying.