A slew of unchecked emotions and the words “Maybe he wasn’t a perfect father / Maybe I wasn’t the perfect son” spew forth from the speakers as Folks Music begins. Behind those words lay the tortured psyche of Mars Black, a folk rapper hailing from Omaha, Nebraska. Spinning a distinctively Midwestern bastardization of urban angst, the narrative splinters along issues of intimacy, race, and family. At the onset, the juxtaposition of folk and rap music appears to brew a new hope — a fleeting pang of optimism that fades as the track count increases.
Two songs deep, he does what so many have done before him, and he does it satisfactorily. Many of the tracks show a few sparks of brilliance, exploring a sensitive side of rap, but they do it awkwardly, occasionally exploding in bouts of unnecessary screaming. Sonically, Black pushes a countrified retro hip-hop aesthetic — dusty old samples, old school scratching, and choppy, uneven guitars. But where Black fails is in conjuring up imagery that scalds your memory. Not only that, but his cornbread lyrics, swollen with pain, flip between self-consciousness and ghetto narcissism, sounding raw in all the wrong places and contrived in all the rest.
Team Love, the record label owned by folk singer/songwriter and Bright Eyes front man Conor Oberst, is Black’s recording home. There is no tangible connection — musically — between the two beyond a “philosophical kinship” and an ability to sound different and unimpressive at the same time. Don’t expect any Tilly and the Wall, Oberst, the Faint, or Cursive guest collaborations — at least not yet. Hell, maybe that’s Folks Music‘s greatest failure. Maybe Midwest melancholy folk rock might do well to team up with hip-hop’s syncopated drum beats and verbal trickery.
“Scotch on the Rocks” revels in its own inebriation. Lyrically, it stumbles around in a stupor, while a looping trumpet oozes jazzy depression. All the while, Black leaps from preposterous Gilligan’s Island references to human beat boxing to ordering another round. Again, Black is rescued by the beats, which doesn’t say much because they aren’t that impressive. Consisting mainly of a flute mashed against a Casio synthesizer, “Fade to Black” is another mediocre effort with forgettable lyrics and a sliver of an idea that was aborted before it was delivered. Lyric bashing aside, “In the Streets” and “Hey Ma” convey the familiar street crime narrative of losing a friend and delve into Black’s mother-son relationship, but they don’t scar the soul like Pac did.
To his credit, Black is honest most of the time — just not compelling. And on Folks Music there’s too much bombast and not enough substance for what he claims to be doing, although at times he hints at innovation. With poor, uninspiring production, the concept loses traction. “Buck & Nuts” starts with a basic drum beat and some slick scratching by producer e. Babbs. It holds such promise as the gloomy piano stirs to life; a promise extended by the historical/geographically humdinger of an opening line, “Back when Istanbul was Constantinople”. Promises that go unfulfilled by the time Black sends shout outs to Bob Saget, Full House, and acid reflux.
The way Nebraska-born Mars Black names drops Bob Dylan, you’d expect his stories to dance across your retina and linger in your eardrums. As a narrator, Black lacks a certain depth and storytelling prowess, something Cash and Dylan had in ample supply. Fans of either should avoid this disc like SARS or suffer intolerable disappointment. The problem with Black is that his stories smoulder where they’re supposed to blaze, and fold when they should’ve bluffed, all the while failing to blaze a new ring of fire that will burn deep in our imaginations.