Everyone loves a good comeback story. Underdog tales of the human spirit triumphing over insurmountable odds. We love to watch the Danny LaRussos of the world, struggling to stand on their shattered legs, lift up to crane stance and deliver tournament winning kicks against the reigning champs. They give us hope that even the most unremarkable or the most hurt or the most downtrodden among us can succeed and lift the trophy above their heads. It’s an easy story, often a tear-jerker, but a good story all the same.
Minneapolis rapper P.O.S is one such comeback kid, overcoming kidney failure with waves of support from fans and his Doomtree bandmates. As a punk-sensible artist with a penchant for bombastic, shout-along bangers, P.O.S easily could have delivered on his newest album a string of victorious, live-for-the-moment tracks exploiting his personal struggle to inspire listeners to find their inner strength and press on when the going gets tough. But Chill, Dummy doesn’t take the easy road. It’s not about his medical troubles or his gratitude or his ability to endure, at least not entirely. Maybe that tack would be too much like pandering, maybe it would feel to egocentric, maybe it just wouldn’t be very interesting. The angle P.O.S did take is more subtle. It’s exploratory and pushes the boundaries of what he has come to be recognized as.
The past few albums from P.O.S have split production duties mostly between Doomtree’s Lazerbeak and the artist himself, both of whom tend to favor hard beats with pounding drums and cutting leads. It usually matches well with P.O.S’s aggressive delivery — he used to sing in a punk band after all. But it can start to feel one-note before too long. But the production on Chill, Dummy takes a sharp left. The 12 tracks are split almost half and half between P.O.S and St. Louis producer Cory Grindberg who has a more subtle approach. His first contribution comes on the song “Pieces/Ruins”, an minimal, ethereal beat with inconsistent hits. Not what one would expect from P.O.S, but it works especially because the song features LA rapper Busdriver who is familiar with this kind of rhythmic and tonal contrast.
Just about every Cory Grindberg track has the same kind of unexpected atmosphere. They seem to encourage P.O.S to adjust his learned style. There was a time when his strength was long-winded lines that fit too many words into one bar but somehow felt effortless. But over Grindberg’s broad beats, he sounds steadier, more thoughtful with his words and rhythms. He is forced to craft his ideas in a new way, cutting his lines sometimes to a few words. “Soft dads / Mad at the wrong stuff / No plans / Champion time suck / All chance / Skills are abundant,” he recites deliberately on “Thieves/Kings” each line distinct and well thought out. Even P.O.S pushes his production on “Faded” and “Get Ate” subbing out his tendency toward strict, heavy, aggressive sounds for a flexible looseness that moves the spotlight around as needed from vocalists to bass-lines to drums. The album has trademark banger tracks, of course — “Wearing a Bear” springs to mind in particular — but they aren’t all that way. There is movement outside of his box, a slight turn towards more modern hip-hop feels, and a subtle shift toward highlighting new aspects of his art.
A key aspect of P.O.S’s art being his writing. It’s important to mention again that Chill, Dummy is not about his kidney failure and subsequent surgery. He mentions it in “Wearing a Bear” and “Pieces/Ruins” mostly concerning referencing his guts, both literal and figurative. But he doesn’t fully address the issue until the final nine-minute track “Sleepdrone/Superposition”. He hits the same points he always has delivering social commentary like “Some of y’all thought racism was over cause the President was black” and “Dyed in the wool / With the other out of step sheep / Lied on the stand / Bible in hand.” But P.O.S also reveals an element of self-reflection that has been obscured by the activist bent on many of his earlier albums. “Faded” wrestles with the artist’s struggle to accept his need for help and love. Despite “Gravedigger’s” morbid title it is a smooth track that denies the idea of using precious time just to work yourself to death and get some semblance of fame or power. It may be cliche to say his medical problems have given P.O.S a renewed perspective on death and an appreciation for the little things, but he’s subtle and smart enough with his writing that it doesn’t feel cheesy or too on the nose.
P.O.S has mostly surrounded himself with people on this album who will challenge him and encourage him to expand. Open Mike Eagle, Manchita, Justin Vernon, Busdriver, and Kathleen Hanna appear not just in voice on the album but in spirit, P.O.S adopting their approaches to apply here and there. At times the additions don’t seem to fit quite right, and other times, despite every effort by the production to rein him in, P.O.S gets loose and slips into a delivery that is too aggressive or too jarring for the surrounding atmosphere. And even for all of the album’s successes in taking more subtle directions, there are some instances of stubbornness in style and writing.
“Born a Snake” certainly grabs attention as the album’s thumping opener, but it feels out of place once you’ve heard the whole album. And although “Bully” does employ some creative and engaging rhythmic ideas, it’s use of random censor bleeps, and odd effects are distracting and off-putting. The track is also unwieldy in P.O.S’s hands making him sound like the featured artist rather than the other way around. Once through the first quarter of the album, however, it goes off almost without a hitch. A few dips and peaks throughout, but the elements seem to fall into place for a consistent and cohesive experience.
P.O.S finally leaves the listener with “Sleepdrone/Superposition” a song that actually does address his kidney failure, his gratitude and inability to fully express it, his struggle to continue living in his weakened state. This is his comeback story, but, in classic P.O.S style, this isn’t the hollywood version. He accepts and tries to communicate the idea that it’s not about just delivering that final crane kick. Danny has to learn to live with his shattered knees. Pain is part of life but one has to push forward. On Chill, Dummy P.O.S has indeed pushed himself forward and outward, never saying the words but letting his demeanor, his get-back-to-work attitude speak for him. He seems to suggest that his is not a comeback story, because he isn’t done yet. He is still coming back, facing new odds, the constant underdog. Maybe we all are.