B. Michael Payne owns stock in both Fanta and jolly ranchers.

There’s a version of this piece that doesn’t play the Guess The Race Game. I think we can all agree the Guess the Race Game is the worst. But there are many, many pieces to the Spark Master Tape experience that lend themselves to the GTRG. For starters, the cover of his 2012 mixtape, Syrup Splash. Is that a picture of him? A picture he thought was hilarious? A commentary on race? None of the above? (Maybe. Sure. Unlikely. Probably.)

The other thing about Spark Master that lends itself to the GTRG is that his music is just so damn formal. As in, it has a lot of conceptual jibber jabber and trope-laden imagery — all in accordance with a pretty identifiable standard. His videos are filled with footage of Coolio, 2pac, et al. The songs are filled with “trap” drums, air horns, and fake DJ drops. He liberally populates his raps themselves, which are more than capable, with meaningless signifiers: snap-backs, BasedGod, selling yams. He has an overriding love (lust?) for Amber Rose. In the internet irony era, where any misstep can be post hoc erased under the banner of “satire”, it’s hard to tell if Spark Master Tape’s music might not be the Tumblr rap version of the Sokal Hoax.

No matter what race Spark Master Tape is, it’s clear that he’s interested in stripping away all identifying characteristics of himself from his online presence. That in itself is a more interesting and fruitful subject matter than the GTRG.

It might be that Spark Master Tape’s self-effacement angle arose after he made some tough aesthetic decisions. The way his vocals are always pitched down recall Lil Ugly Mane. His graveyard production reminds you of Spaceghostpurrp. But, perhaps obviously, the music on Spark Master Tape’s Syrup Splash is most like DJ Screw’s body of work. The digital pitch manipulation doesn’t proffer the same dreamy, gauzy character of DJ Screw’s best work. It merely suggests that effect, and leaves the listener to decide whether the effect is earned. Some of the tracks, of course, are more propulsive than your average chopped and screwed joint. The lead-off track, “M80”, sounds like something Childish Gambino would record. (Another point in the GTRG for ‘white’?) The raucous “Bullet Holes” updates the synthesizes a lot of different musical ideas in less than two minutes, to great effect.

Brevity, in fact, is what separates Spark Master Tape and his primary producer, Paper Platoon, from DJ Screw and the whole nouveau chopped and screwed movement. None of the songs tops four and a half minutes, and the whole mixtape is 36 minutes long.

The way Spark Master effortlessly generates a well realized dreadful mood puts him into rare company within the very recent mixtape world. It’s pretty easy to get great beats (or at least jack them), and the lexicon is mostly set. But the way he combines a self-defeated misery and self-medicated revel gives the semi-anonymous Spark Master Tape more personality than many rappers.

Whether this personality is earned is, I guess, why we play the Guess The Race Game, though. Does it matter? Maybe. I’m reminded of an insightful post on the Elite Gymnastics tumblr, which made the point about the current “trapewave” craze,

maybe people insist on calling their productions stuff like “bmore” and “trap” because they think the association with crime and poverty makes something like a dance remix of the outfield that would normally be a very whitebread and mundane proposition on paper seem edgier and more dangerous.

It seems like the obvious and human point to make is that people should not be cultural tourists or ruthless appropriators. There’s a difference between an ostensibly poor kid with ‘no way out’ making music to cope with his friends getting shot and a kid in a dorm room in New Haven (lacking those concerns). It is the difference between trying to be a genuine human being and being a piece of human garbage.

As well, I came across this idea over the course of researching a big project that David Berman uses to justify his music style. He says in this interview:

In general techno and the electronic movement that is less lyric oriented. That to me really became a part of the shopping culture that’s really come up. Because music like that really makes you the star, you’re in the forefront, and it’s the soundtrack to your life.

I sense a similar rise in rap, which probably separates an old school fogey from, I guess, whatever the opposite is. As rap lyrics become more and more trope-obsessed — eg, just saying watchwords and repeating meaningless catchphrases — it does become less personalized and more all-purpose. It doesn’t let you in on a particular person’s ideas; it inculcates you into a culture’s obsessions.

When Spark Master Tape ends “Syrup Splash” saying, “That’s just life on the grizzle / live and die fast”, I mean, I have no reason not to believe in his nihilism. But I also don’t really believe it, either. He sounds way more earnest later on “Dope Dealer”, when he says, “I don’t want to die / just got a new iPad.” It’s easier for me to believe in gross materialism over a looming existential dread, even though it’s the latter that more informs Syrup Splash. I’m again reminded of Spark Master’s semi-secret identity, and how predominantly white libertarian types like to say that it only takes hard work (not the right race, birthplace, or financials) to succeed in life. The saying about people born on third base, you know?

Obviously, not all art is auto-biographical, nor does it aspire to that standard. Authenticity and earnestness are not prerequisites for thought-provoking music. Spark Master Tape’s Syrup Splash — and especially his tracks from this year — are sophisticated, aesthetically ill, and perhaps inspired. I just don’t necessarily want to listen to music that’s emotionally and culturally exploitative. That might be an impossibility, though.


Stream/Download:
(Via Phat Friend)

ZIP: Spark Master Tape –  *Syrup Splash (Left-Click)