In what has become affectionately (to some), derisively (to others) known as “backpack rap”, Pigeon John’s a steadfast, if more under-the-radar, presence. Less up-to-date than someone like Atmosphere, less interested in the electronic elements of his songs than someone like Diverse, Pigeon John has seemingly been content to spin good-natured if ephemeral yarns about Inglewood life and his own tragic-comic place in it all. I always think of him in terms of his 2003 hit “Life Goes On”, with its “one for the…two for the…” chorus (incidentally echoed on one song from his new album) and smooth, ever-conquering optimism — a perfect indication of the MC’s chin-up mentality.
On his latest CD, …And the Summertime Pool Party, PJ turned to indie rap powerhouse Quannum (DJ Shadow’s collaboration of MCs including Lyrics Born), and the result is not so much different, as the title might suggest, from his other work, but rather breezy and unabashedly enjoyable. It’s nothing startling from the likeable MC, but Pigeon does push a little here and there, infusing some Latin and even hyphy elements into his signature laid-back vibe.
Let’s not kid; you wouldn’t call this the cutting edge of hip-hop. Pigeon John’s delivery pays a big debt to old school hip-hop, and his organic instrumentation follows artists like the Roots (among many others). But his success isn’t one of originality; it’s one of sheer joy. His subjects grow from his own Zorba-like celebration of the smallest pleasures in life, and his easy melodies never feel forced.
From the opening bars, we’re on familiarly upbeat ground. To the accompaniment of a Latin beat, PJ raps “My head’s full of the Beatles and De La playing ping pong”, and the parsed influences don’t feel obnoxious for a second. I don’t think PJ could come across obnoxious on record if he tried, actually. His likeability stems, I think, from his regular-guy positioning and a strong streak of nostalgia — something most of us can relate to. The former comes across strongest on “Money Back Guarantee”, the rapper’s take on a subject that has become a joke-rap staple: pickup lines. Here, though, Pigeon charms through his self-deprecation; his hopeless lines (“Can I buy you an orange juice?” and “Need a Kleenex?”) and whiney regular-guy chorus (“Just trying to meet ya/I ain’t no pimp or athlete or hip-hop star”) are interesting precisely because they avoid overt boasts.
Pigeon John’s nostalgia is another story altogether. Throughout all his discs, the MC finds a rich subject in his Inglewood childhood and adolescence, and that is continued here. “The Last Sunshine” is an absolute highlight, with its childhood recollections of Magic Mountain, skateboarding, sunshine, and a chorus full of longing and loss. In fact, PJ mines the past for both happiness and pain. “As We Know It”, featuring the chorus from that REM song (perhaps you’ve heard it, you know, end of the world and all that), undermines the intensity of its story comparing the end of a relationship to the end of the world with an upbeat, fun vibe. The result is to affirm, always, there’s a possibility of happiness in the most catastrophic circumstances.
This theme is repeated over and over in Pigeon John’s work, from the unemployment hijinks of “I Lost My Job Again” to the rising and rising and rising and still rising “Higher?!”. In the end optimism can’t help but shine through, and that’s why …And the Summertime Pool Party rewards as more than a disposable fad. The chorus of the first song, “Welcome to the Show”, thrills with promise: “I know you got bills to pay, but I’m here to help you wash it all away”. And despite the various woes recounted over the course of the album, towards the end the same sentiment is echoed on “Brand New Day”:
No matter if there’s bills you still gotta pay
No matter if your dreams are fading away …
It’s a brand new day.
The West Coast, relaxed vibe is truly infectious. On …And the Summertime Pool Party, this now-veteran MC has shown us an unabashedly good time, replete with hopeful, sunny melody and an essential, despite-it-all optimism truly in keeping with his nature.