MC Frontalot Hates and Loves the Internet Now and 'Net Split' deals with That Dichotomy
MC Frontalot's perspective on Net Split as an internet elder statesman and old school nerd is valuable, especially as a person who has arrived at an anti-gatekeeping point of view.
Net Split, or the Fathomless Heartbreak of Online Itself
Level Up Records and Tapes
8 March 2019
Although his first album wasn't released until 2005, MC Frontalot (neé Damian Hess) has been making music since 1999. He invented the term "nerdcore" and has been one of the subgenre's shining stars, releasing five records of proudly nerdy hip-hop between 2005 and 2011. In that time he covered a lot of geeky ground, from typical nerdy topics like video games, sci-fi, and anime to more science, math, and history-oriented tracks. He's slowed down considerably since 2011's Solved, releasing only the fairy tale-themed, kid-oriented album Question Bedtime in 2014. And now, five years later, comes Net Split, or the Fathomless Heartbreak of Online Itself.
And boy, does Frontalot have some thoughts. Net Split is a concept album about the Internet, and Hess' deep ambivalence about its current state. Mostly gone are the songs that playfully reference nerd culture. The nine new tracks here take on various issues involving the experience of being online. Some feel like fresh, timely ideas, while a couple of them come off as a bit dated. At his best, though, MC Frontalot's storytelling chops and witty delivery make his songs entertaining and thoughtful.
Over a spare, loping drumbeat garnished with flute flourishes, "Internet Sucks" opens the album as a mission statement of sorts. The opening verse reminisces about the early days of the Internet, referencing MUD games, Gopher clients, Usenet, and dialup. Frontalot then brings it into the present with pros and cons. "Sometimes I'm overjoyed that this thing got democratized / Anybody with a pocket phone can lend a voice against those who talk the lies" is followed shortly by "But how exactly is one supposed to mute the fact that a tenth of our netizens / When offered the chance to shit on anything pull down pants without hesitance." "Internet Sucks" functions both as a breakup song of sorts, with its chorus "Sometimes I wish I loved you / Sometimes I don't know what to do" anchoring Hess' examination of his relationship with the online world. It also functions as a howl of despair, but interestingly the song just sort of trails off after he admits to not knowing how to improve things. "Could a solution lurk that hasn't been discovered in it yet?"
Down all the way at track eight, at the record's unofficial end, is "Bad Nerd", which functions as a bookend. This song is more sprightly than "Internet Sucks", with low pulsing synths in the verses and high register bleeps accompanying the chorus, shout-sung by Corn Mo. "You don't have to be bad, nerd / Step away from the dark side / You don't have to be bad, nerd / You can muster some pride." Frontalot opens the song by talking about what it used to mean to be a nerd, how it was a group of picked-on pariahs who banded together out of fear and a shared language of references and intelligence. After a run through the chorus, he takes on the modern stereotype of the aggrieved gatekeeping nerd. Election hacking, SWATting, and "contempt for anyone who isn't nerd at all", all get mentioned, with the despairing conclusion, "Why you got to make 'nerd' mean 'asshole'? / Why you got to make the Internet cruel?" There's a lot of venting going on in these two songs, but fortunately Frontalot's presentation and lyrical skills prevent the tracks from being tiresome and preachy.
"Never Read the Comments" and "Dating Profile" are not quite as successful. These two seem lyrically a step behind, and the music for each doesn't do those lyrics any favors. "Comments" uses a truly annoying techno staccato guitar riff to back up the singsongy chorus "Never read the comments / Never read 'em never / Never read the comments." Frontalot's growly voice when he plays the evil commenter certainly separates the character from his usual delivery, but the whole sentiment just feels like old news without much interesting to say. "Dating Profile" features grinding guitars and bloopy synths to back up incredibly dense lyrics taking on dating apps and the algorithms. Frontalot has a lot to say here but it's not nearly as pointed as when taking on internet nerds, and aside from the synth tone resembling the music in the classic Nintendo game Metroid Prime, there isn't much notable about the production, either.
Those are really the only two low points of the record, though. "Extremely Online" and "DDoS" both turn around the perspective and point the finger at Frontalot himself and other 'net addicts. The former gets a lot of mileage from its production, which very specifically recalls the late '90s combination of jungle beats, hip-hop, and rock that permeated Soul Coughing's third album El Oso. The song teases with its chorus, "Don't know how to turn the box off" and closes by scoffing, "There's one technique / And nobody's verified it: / Flick the power switches off / But that won't work / I've tried it." The latter uses a slow hip-hop beat and menacing distorted synths and begins with a long verse from Quelle Chris. Chris' low register delivery matches the tone of the song, and when Frontalot comes in he also alters his delivery to fit the song. The chorus once again serves as the song's point: "All head saturated by internets / Get progressively worse at thought / Imagine it the other way around? It's not."
While Frontalot's takedowns of internet nerd culture are interesting to hear from a guy who once wholeheartedly embraced it, the song "IWF" and the skit "Internet Police" might be the album's most effective tracks. "IWF" is "Internetting While Female", and Frontalot opens the song by playing the part of a Gamergate-style troll attacking a woman simply for being a woman. He then turns the mic over to a trio of female MC's. Miss Eaves, Lex, and E-Turn each take a verse relating their experiences with trolls and handily taking them down. Meanwhile, jaunty piano and horns give the song a bounce while Starr Busby's soul-inspired chorus, "Boy, you better get yourself together / It ain't 2007 / Your back is up against the wall" pulls the song right into the #Metoo era. "Internet Police" features Frontalot as the chief of the Internet Police and casts Gamergate target Anita Sarkeesian as an officer being suspended because of complaints that she's "harassing the Internet men." Mostly this is silly but there are a few gems in there, such as the observation that a "he said, she said" situation is by its very nature weighted towards the man since "he said" comes first in the saying.
After all the grumbling, the album brightens up for its final three tracks. "Message 419", "I Hate Your Blog", and "Pr0n S0ng" were all internet-related songs from Frontalot's first two albums, and they're presented here in "unplugged" versions. Each song features drums, upright bass, and piano with Frontalot rapping. These are all bouncy and fun and it finishes out the album on a much less cynical note, which definitely helps with the mood. Of special note is "I Hate Your Blog", which features a new guest verse from Quelle Chris, with an updated take on what a terrible blog would include in 2019 vs. the 2007 original.
Lyrically, Net Split is very, very strong. MC Frontalot's perspective as an internet elder statesman and old school nerd is valuable, especially as a person who has arrived at an anti-gatekeeping point of view. He clearly supports the internet being open to everyone and is more than willing to call out people who do not. Musically the album could stand to be a little more like "IWF" and the bouncy unplugged tracks than the sometimes-oppressive low-end synths and guitar he tends to lean on. But there is a lot of anger and venting here, so those sounds aren't entirely unwarranted. It's nice to hear Frontalot go hard, and his fellow old school nerds would be well-advised to give Net Split a listen.