It normally takes a little while with Fog albums, and Anticon albums in general, to realize you haven't wasted your money. On first listen, it's frequently pretty much awful, and that's definitely the case with Fog's new one, Hummer. You listen to this EP and you're pissed off that you were played like a sucker by the press, and now you've bought music by this flunky, no-rhythm monkey. Andrew Broder, who is Fog, and his buddies -- who go by equally self-conscious rap monikers like Why?, Odd Nosdam, or Buck65 -- often sound like the worst of everything combined. There's some flaccid attempts at a hip-hop break, there's some ineptly shy indie-rock crybabying, there's some odd Rick Wakeman-style '70s prog keyboard interludes and arias, there's a bit of everything. And somehow it all sucks. This is what we all thought Beck was going to turn out like after Mellow Gold, but somehow he knew better.
But then, grudgingly (because you spent money), you listen to it again, and this time you're not sure you like it more because you're forcing yourself, or because it actually sounds better. In the case of Hummer, and usually this is the case with Fog, after a bunch of listens, it turns out the record is really good. It took me about five listens before I was confident this album was even listenable.
"Hummer" is an apt title track for an album that isn't sure if it's dealing with the Iraq war or suburban ennui. And as Fog songs go, "Hummer" is about as seductive as a pee-stain. It's not going to win Fog any new friends or lovers, that's for sure. It's a rap track on lithium -- the beats are slow, backwards, and flat, and the vocals are weirdly but hellishly annoying. Not to mention dumb. Really dumb lyrics like "We can agree that we all like to look our best, or at the very least be the best at looking the worst. It's no wonder that eventually we will all be on TV". Right, okay, and by the way, Fog: There's a whole world outside your navel.
Meanwhile, the incessant Derridian narcissism continues even on to an instrumental track called "Not Every Goddamn Little Thing You Do Needs A Title", which turns out to be a very beautiful interlude into the most truly textbook definition of solipsism you could possibly make into a song, "I, Baby". A fantastic song, by the way. Fog solos on the piano like a brilliant parody of Tori Amos, singing with innocence and sincerity lines like "Me a baby, me hungry, me thirsty" and "When I grow uppee, me get strongy, me lifty! Me a baby, me poopee". This is, of course, totally ridiculous. What works about it for me is the craftsmanship of the joke. It's a beautiful song, a great heartbreak song, a cry of the injured weakling. But it's also a giant joke, and there's something intellectual about the whole thing that is hard to pinpoint.
The stuff that provides a conceptual framework, rather than a comedic framework like Tenacious D has, is usually the worst stuff on Fog's records. It's when he dissociates himself from the parodic elements that live naturally within his work, and tries too hard to prove his theoretical lineage -- that's when his songs begin to deconstruct in a really embarrassing way. That's definitely the case with the title track to this record. "Melted Crayons" is a brilliant and evocative track that uses rhythm and collagist techniques towards the unified goal of quality. But "The Stink of Kings" just avoids proper song structure using a shallow avant-garde style. This is all balanced with the less timid, more gregarious tracks like "Whom That Hits Walls", which opens the album with a racket of accordion and trumpet and nostril rap. Even with its collapsed improv sections, the track rocks the album.
For all Fog's weaknesses, he's found a way to exploit them musically. But relying on weakness, insecurity, and sensitivity to make rap, or any kind of music, is a strange uphill battle. There have been success stories; recently, Will Oldham, Mountain Goats, and Smog have all been acclaimed for this kind of antiheroism. There is definite appeal to the introverted, and that's getting to know the person better. It's the same with Fog (and Smog, too, coincidentally). For all my complaints, the fact is, there is a definite presence to the music, and what sounds awkward at first becomes increasingly charismatic the more its shy charms reveal themselves. Seriously, even the song "Hummer" eventually sounds good. As a hip-hop move, it's not an unrealistic choice to make music that takes a while to show its staying power. With producers like the Neptunes, Wyclef Jean, and Timbaland around, it's not easy to compete for the ears of the masses. That instant acceptance usually means early indifference. For all his scholarly and musical inhibitions, there is a good chance Fog will still be remembered in the future days when we're saying, "Diddy who? Puff what? Who the hell are you taking about?"