Bubba Sparxxx has “NEW” tattooed on one meaty forearm and “SOUTH” on the other, so when he holds his arms up it spells “NEW SOUTH”. He believes in this New South with every cell in his body; it’s a place where a big white kid from rural Georgia can get a hip-hop record deal and hook up with Timbaland and Organized Noize and make a whole lot of money. More than that, it’s a place without prejudice of any kind, where black and white are equals, where rap and country and rock are all legs of the same triangle, where working-class people of all backgrounds pull together to celebrate their commonalities rather than their differences.
I’m not sure I believe in this New South — what with Reconstruction and Robert Penn Warren and The New Urbanism, aren’t we on the third New South by now? — but I believe that Bubba Sparxxx believes it, and that’s what matters here. In Deliverance, just his second album, he and his producers (Timbaland on 11 tracks, Organized Noize on the remaining four) have constructed a monument to this New New New South. And you don’t really have to believe in it in order to appreciate what a great record this is.
The first signifier of the New New New South: country music. Actually, it’s more like bluegrass when it pops up (pretty clear that Timbaland has been listening to a lot of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack), but wow does it WORK when it does. “She Tried” is heartbreaking, a confession of how Bubba treated his constant woman poorly (“I did my thing and she did hers / But my crimes are a wee bit worse”) and how he doesn’t have her anymore as a consequence (“Last I heard, she was in Birmingham / Living with a good hard-working man”), liberally salted with fiddle and steel guitar and Ryan Tedder’s ancient-sounding twang singing the chorus hook. It’s not the first rap song to use country shadings — hell, Eminem’s “Square Dance” wasn’t even the 20th to do that — but it might be the best to do it so far, even going so far as to explain the (sexual) origin of blues music: “I live for the fiddle and the kick in the snare / I take my love and I stick it in there / Moved it gently and made this song / All because my baby’s gone.” You better not be driving when Austin Clark’s fiddle gets multitracked at the end, because the tears will come. It’s okay, let ’em.
This C&W card gets pulled quite a bit: “Comin’ Round” takes a massive banjo and fiddle and vocal sample selection from the modern country jam ensemble Yonder Mountain String Band and structures his New New New South argument around it: “To the common man and the end of his oppression / Welcome in our church, don’t forget your collection.” “Jimmy Mathis” drops references to loaded shotguns and hillbilly dances and a big fat harmonica riff repeated ad infinitum. And in the title track, which is the first single (and has a video that rips off O Brother scene by scene), hoedown handclaps and a Tex-Mex acoustic riff and some Nashvillized strings and a chorus that talks about long dark dusty roads and fishing poles and bottles of ‘shine in yearning harmony all come together to make this song sound like an epic of personal discovery and freedom.
But the second signifier is defying expectations and denying stereotypes. Bubba Sparxxx knows that most people think he’s “just a redneck substance abuse addict”, but he knows in his heart that if he keeps working hard he can find true rural satori, become who he wants to be, “A country boy who got ’em shook like Randy Moss and Jason.” He imagines himself into the outlaw-on-the-run scenario of “Warrant” with nothing but a Bible and a rifle, but does so gently with references to looking in his children’s eyes and frustrated dreams. “Back in the Mud” is an insanely fast power-pop song from the Organized Noize crew, which breaks down stereotypes already, and then when Bubba starts spitting lyrics like “What’s that they say? / Hip-hop redneck, that’s a safe place / Say what makes you comfortable / With me ’cause I like it here / How about a worldwide-dreaded urban music pioneer?”
There are stereotypes all over that this record tries to break. Timbaland as always doing the same kind of beat, or whipping in whatever fad is around this week? Deliverance disproves this with the country joints, the grimy funk of “Take a Load Off”, the semi-two-step of “Hootnanny”. Organized Noize does this by eschewing their Dirty South bounce in favor of the hardest-rocking songs on the album. And Bubba Sparxxx does this by establishing himself as an MC that can rock serious introspective pieces as well as fun bouncy sexx stuff. He understands that some will criticize him for being who he is — he even has to fight off the ghost of Eminem comparisons — and that pushes him harder, which in turn pushes his producers harder, which in turn pushes him harder, etc. This is the hardest-working album in show business right now; tracks like “Overcome”, with Sparxxx telling his haters, “You don’t like my shit? / Beat it out of me!” and Timbaland layering trombones and trumpets like a warped funky version of David Byrne’s music from Robert Wilson’s Knee Plays over the top of the whole thing, and Sparxxx yelling “I will never turn and run / There’s nothing I can’t overcome!” and Timba sliding a huge string section and some interlocking gospel-hop vocals on top of that.
This ambition, this willingness to pull out all the stops and make the music beautiful and tell the truth at the same time, is the third signifier. This New New New South will be reconstructed and soundtracked by works of art like this, and hearing it all come together is pretty damned inspiring. Even if this place doesn’t exist, I want to live there, in harmony and ambition and togetherness. I know I’ll never get there, but I’m going to keep trying.
In the meantime, I have this album. Sometimes that is enough.