Radio Pet Fencing is either the best or the worst hip-hop album of the year. I can't decide which. There is no in-between.
Lars Horris is a 21-year-old Stanford English major. He's attended Oxford University. He's very, very white.
Now, for those of you who may have come in late, there was a time when the very idea of a white MC was a joke. Sure, we had the Beasie Boys and 3rd Bass, but they weren't taken very seriously by the hip-hop establishment. Then, of course, there was Vanilla Ice, who gave us honkies a bad name for a good decade. And then Eminem appeared. It's been five years since The Slim Shady LP dropped, and its easy to forget just how alien and odd he was when he first appeared, before he single-handedly realigned the entire pop landscape. I thought it was a joke, and so did just about everyone else who bought the album when it first dropped. But then something odd happened, and the realization sunk in that, not only wasn't it a joke, but Eminem was quite possibly one of the greatest MCs in history. And he happened to be white.
Which brings us to the weird gray-area at the heart of Radio Pet Fencing. It's obvious that Lars Horris has a genuine and contagious enthusiasm for hip-hop music. It's obvious that he means nothing less than an absolutely sincere tribute to the hip-hop music that he loves. But where do you draw the line at cultural appropriation? Eminem gained credibility from the hip-hop community for "keeping it real" -- he was rapping about being poor white trash from a broken family in downtown Detroit. Vanilla Ice was whack as hell because he was trying to appropriate an image of urban gangsta that fit about as well as stiletto hells on an ostrich. Lars Horris "keeps it real" too, but his concept of reality has about as much in common with Eminem as Vanilla Ice did with BDP.
Horris raps about the things you would expect your average well-educated and precocious upper-middle-class WASP to rap about -- Shakespeare, whales, aliens, and robots. You get the sense that he doesn't take things very seriously, even if he is very strident about shouting out props to touchstones such as Public Enemy and RUN-DMC. But perhaps there is something a bit illicit in this kind of musical expropriation. There's a shout-out in the liner notes to "Weird" Al Yankovic, who in Horris' words, "will always be king". But it's interesting to remember that Yankovic's two most famous hip-hop parodies, "Amish Paradise" and "Couch Potato" (spun off Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" and Eminem's "Lose Yourself", respectively), were met with controversy from the hip-hop community. Coolio disowned Yankovic's parody and called it a trivialization of a very serious message, while Eminem refused to give his blessings for Yankovic to film a video of "Couch Potato".
There are no hip-hoppers more stridently conscientious than white hip-hoppers, and this comes in part from a keen awareness that they are perceived as cultural tourists in an unfriendly environment. Lars Horris seems oblivious to this distinction, as he makes clear on the album's opening "Hey That's Me":
I was chilling in my '88 south on 101 /
With the woofer in the back bumping P.E. number one. /
Free-styling in a genre I didn't create /
Props to Melle Mel, Chuck D, and all eight /
Hundred thousand MCs on whose shoulders I stand. /
I'm just a white kid with a plastic jammie in his hand! /
See this MC here spends his life feeling fine, /
But doesn't often get off in a straight line.
In terms of his skill as an MC, he falls somewhere between "whack" and "sucka". He's very intelligent and his verses drip with obscure and knowledgeable cultural references, from the ill-fated militant abolitionist John Brown to Matt Groening. But his raps themselves are very simplistic, usually simple AABB couplets, and his flow is negligible.
But there is something undeniably fun at the heart of this music. He's having a great time, exulting in the sheer pleasure of rhyming words together and laying beats underneath. "My Rhymes Rhyme" is perhaps the best dis rap I've heard in ages:
Though you may not even know if I mean what I say /
It's legit when I tell you this homey don't play. /
So sit back and relax and pop open a Coke, /
Compared to me, 50 Cent, your rhymes are a joke. /
Roses are red, violets are blue. /
My rhymes rhyme, but yours don't.
In terms of delivery, he may not be Ghostface Killa -- OK, he may not even be Ma$e -- but he's got a way with words. He just doesn't care that he's silly. He enjoys the sensation.
"Make Way for Ducklings" is probably his best track, in terms of succinctly translating his peculiar philosophical bent in an amusing way:
No doubt, what I'm about is helping you /
To lively up yourself like Marley would do. /
And we're picking up more people as we go /
Introverted sad humans, no internal glow. /
We've got to keep driving, cars out of our way! /
I've got nascent cargo here on life's highway. /
As precious as small birds straight out the shell /
Check the chorus, the metaphor explains itself well. /
Make way for ducklings /
Make way for these introverted ducklings. /
Make way for ducklings /
Soon they'll be existentialist heroes.
Imagine that over a beat straight off a circa-1990 Depeche Mode b-side and perhaps you will understand. It's been said before, but it bears repeating: you're not likely to hear DMX rocking a joint called "Make Way for Ducklings".
Other highlights include "Sarah", a plaintive, pitiful appeal to a former lover, and the climactic "Escape from Robot Island", featuring guest raps from MNP and a rapping robot (I'm not joking, there's a rapping robot).
All things considered, there is ultimately no way to answer the question of just what Lars Horris's artistic expression means for hip-hop as a culture and a genre in the year 2004. I certainly can't answer it, because despite the fact that Radio Pet Fencing shows every indication of being a novelty album, there's enough honesty and sincere -- albeit clumsy -- artistry to reward repeated listenings. Being a honky never sounded so good.