Jonathan Bradley: Real Name. No Gimmicks.
Hip-hop has a lot in common with the Republican Party. Both are largely racially homogeneous, fond of guns and suspicious of gays. Also, both are strongest in the South, obsessed with the Reagan era, concerned about a decline in their popularity, and have recently mourned the death of a man named Tony Snow.
Shit, maybe hip-hop is the Republican Party. Bobby Jindal and Lil’ Boosie would attend the same parties, right? Anyway, the most important point of comparison between the GOP and hip-hop is that both are ostensibly broad churches. In that case, call Asher Roth rap’s Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee Chairman, who conservatives hoped would be their Barack Obama, but instead turned out to be some guy who promised his public relations strategy, aimed at, no kidding, “urban-suburban hip-hop settings” would be “off the hook.”
It’s not that people like Roth don’t belong in hip-hop, just like Republicans will tell you the GOP is happy to have folks who aren’t white, male, and white (also, male) in their party. It’s more that Asher Roth is the last guy who should be tearing down rap’s Greek barrier. (That’s Greek as in Fraternity. Apparently Greek hip-hop, as in coming out of the Mediterranean nation, not only is going strong, it has the best sideshows outside of Northern Cali.)
For a start, there’s something a bit discomfiting about the way Roth turns his involvement in hip-hop into something political, rather than an attempt to do something a bit different and in touch with his own experience. He told Sean Fennessey over at Vibe:
“When I wrote my ‘A Milli’ freestyle, that was me listening to 10 years of hip hop and not relating to it at all. Like, damn, I don’t sell coke. Damn, I don’t have cars or 25-inch rims. I don’t have guns. I finally got to a point where I had the confidence to do this thing myself, and I was making music for me. And it turns out, a lot of people feel the same way I do.”
Roth likes talking about how he doesn’t relate to hip-hop, even though he told Fennessey: “Kids from the ’burbs have been inspired and influenced by hip hop for years.” He says much the same thing on “Fallin’,” which, one of the better tracks on his Asleep in the Bread Aisle album. “Even though I couldn’t really relate, I kept studying and listening,” he raps over a Ben Kweller interpolation. I dunno, I don’t doubt his sincerity, but I thought only old dudes who don’t like rap were so determined to point out that suburban white kids listen to it.
The strange thing is, though, that I can’t see how Roth’s CD is going to fix the problem for the next generation of Ashers interested in finding out what this hip-hop thing is about. Roth’s debut isn’t a hip-hop chronicle of the life and times of a middle class suburban kid. It isn’t like I was expecting an Illmatic for the commuter towns (though wouldn’t such a thing be incredible?) but given Roth’s insistence that he hasn’t been feeling a quarter century’s worth of hip-hop made by black folks from the inner city, I hoped he could offer a more compelling vision of his lifestyle than 1) Smoking weed; 2) Hitting on girls; and 3) Playing video games. Because I’ve never noticed hip-hop lacking for songs about smoking weed and hitting on girls — and Biggie’s one line, “Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis/When I was dead broke I couldn’t picture this” in “Juicy” is more meaningful than any boner Asher Roth gets because the girl he wanted to fuck then ditch in “Be By Myself” likes playing Madden.
But as senselessly antagonistic and reductive as Roth’s talking points about the lack of hip-hop for white suburban kids are, he does have a point. Sort of. There is no reason stories about suburbia and college kids can’t be told through the lens of hip-hop. Stories like that have been told in every medium and every style from teenage comedy (Van Wilder Party Liaison is quite possibly the blueprint for Roth’s career) to earnest bildungsroman by at least a half century’s worth of first-novelists. The thing is, though, hip-hop kind of has been telling stories like that lately. You just won’t find many of them on Roth’s disc.
“I Love College,” Roth’s first single and best known song sounds like a college tune from the point of view from someone who never got around to enrolling. Consciously or, more likely, not, it’s a poor rewrite of the far better country tune “College” by Brad Paisley and Pat Green. In that song, the pair sing “Next thing I know, I’m outta here/A backseat full of clothes and my old Cavalier/There was empty pizza boxes, stacked around the room/A couple beers on a Tuesday, and one in the afternoon.” Spiritually, if not musically, Paisley and Green’s tune celebrates a lot of the same things as Roth’s tune does, only with feeling, imagination and actual recognizable details rather than drinking chants. Given that one of hip-hop’s strengths is that its capacity for lyrical complexity offers more opportunity for detailed storytelling, I would have hoped Roth’s frat tune would have something more interesting to offer than advice not to fall asleep with your shoes on.
The Paisley Underground
But away from “I Love College” and its country cousin–when other rappers touch on college, they do it with more insight and thoughtfulness than Roth. Kanye West’s “All Falls Down” isn’t a party tune like “I Love College,” but the College Dropout’s lines about a woman whose “major that she majored in don’t make no money/but she won’t drop out, her parents will look at her funny” sounds closer to any real life educational experience than Roth’s tune. And Kanye’s character shares Roth’s desire to stay in college forever, but West recognizes that’s not an entirely positive feeling: “The concept of school seems so secure/Sophomore three years, ain’t picked a career.”
“I Love College,” is a song about the good times you experience in higher education, and it absolutely does not need to offer a more rounded view of that time. But if Roth really was intent on making an album to which kids like him could relate, I would have expected him to have a bit more to say about school than “That party last night was really something.” I don’t want to sound like Dean Wormer, lecturing “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son,” but doesn’t Roth have something else to say? If Death Cab for Cutie can spend its first couple albums exploring the emotional entanglements and post-hangover melancholia surrounding those parties Roth attends, and Vampire Weekend can make a road trip sound like a manifesto (“Walcott”) or make entire tunes out of a momentary glimpse of an (ex-) lover between classes (“Campus”) surely Roth can bring this diversity of experience to his genre. These aren’t proscriptions, by the way. It’s just that Roth has nothing interesting to say about being a college kid, a time of your life when all kinds of interesting things happen. Roth did attend University, but this disc makes him sound like a dude who witnessed it from his folks pad and scribbled it in his notepad. And one who didn’t actually scribble much worth hearing.
So what does Roth talk about? Well, for one thing, he likes smoking weed. “Blunt Cruisin’” coasts along on a pleasantly stoned groove, even if it is far from being actually captivating. Roth passes a joint around his buddies and drops a clever line about “hopping out like the Mystery Machine” and a dumb line about his “eyes being the size of Mr. Miyagi’s.” It’s not an awful song, but if this is what Roth felt was missing from hip-hop all his life, couldn’t someone have told him about Devin the Dude? Or do white kids and black kids smoke weed in such radically different ways that Roth can’t relate to “Doobie Ashtray”?
If You Can’t Relate To This, Try Higher
Speaking of activities Devin the Dude enjoys, Roth likes checking out girls, too. In the Monet-like (as in the Clueless explanation: “From far away, it’s OK; but up close it’s a big ol’ mess”) “Lark in My Go-Kart,” Roth catches a glimpse of “Honey in the sundress with the breasts luscious.” Shawty sends Roth a text: “O-M-G You’re the B-E-ST/If you’re trying to have sex, I’m the best at it.” Either post-“Annie” rap has been too complicated for young Asher, or he’s just a bit snippy because it lacks white girls.
I wouldn’t bring up the race thing if Roth wasn’t so obsessed with it. Brandon Soderberg’s already given it a deep analysis. But white guys have come along and made it in mainstream rap before Roth; not just the touchstone Eminem, but the thematically complex Bubba Sparxx, and agreeably straightforward Paul Wall, who proved that whether he was making good music or bad (and he has done both) his color didn’t have to be an issue. (Wall also proved pale skin doesn’t necessitate crippling self-consciousness, a lesson Roth would do well to learn.) I’m not going to pretend a mop-haired Caucasian like Roth, whose very being screams Suburbia, wouldn’t have had a tougher time making his way in hip-hop, but surely he would have encountered a bit less hostility if he’d spent more time telling us about himself, and less time explaining how he can’t relate to music that talks about rims, cocaine and firearms?
If you’re rapping about being a slacker twenty-something from the suburbs, color doesn’t even have to be the first and foremost thing that comes out of your mouth. Chicago duo The Cool Kids sound like they might have a bit in common with Roth as far as lifestyle goes. But Asleep in the Bread Aisle eschews the observational ordinariness of something like Cool Kids tune “What Up Man.” Roth might well relate to a lyric like, “Step out the crib with the bear claw slippers/Robe tied tight, chest no chest hairs … Now I’m standing in long lines – lady with the baby/Probably buying some dog food, dog probably crazy/On a daily basis my days be like this/Cause I got to the register and then the store closed.” But the closest he gets is a boast in “Go Kart” that he’s “Heading to the mall/sitting in the back seat getting jerked off.” More interesting than his sexploit is his description of the girl pleasuring him as “an Ashley” — a cute observation of the sort which his album has too little.
Roth’s album is rote. But that shouldn’t necessarily preclude him from being an enjoyable rapper. I listen to more than my fair share of unimaginative gangstas and studio trappers. But it’s here that we get to the real problem with Roth’s rapping: he’s not very good. He tries to show he has talent, and the effort he’s making is, unfortunately, very obvious from the moment he opens his mouth. The opening lines of the album are weed references mixed up with a nonsensical Mother Goose riff: “Sitting on a truffette/Puffing on the best cut buds/Trying to get butt from Miss Muffet/Me and Teddy Ruxpin stirring up a ruckus/Egging all the houses, smashing all the pumpkins.” Which means… nothing. As far as I can tell, a truffette is a French cookie or a mushroom, neither of which sounds suitable for sitting upon — did he mean “tuffet”? — and while I can clearly hear him interchanging between a series of “uff” and “utt” sounds, before introducing recurring rolling “r”s, I can’t seem to figure out his reason for doing so. He’s not painting a vivid picture or evoking any strong sensations. There isn’t even anything particularly dazzling about his delivery; he simply jams a muddle of moderately complex syllables together, and manages to sustain a vague theme that isn’t even developed enough to be considered an extended metaphor.
(He then goes on to tell us that he “Be the king of the blumpkins,” which, well… whatever.)
Teddy Ruxpin: A Co-Sign More Valuable Than DJ Drama
Roth sustains that lyrical approach throughout the album. The pseudo-complexity I mean, not the claims to sexual effluence. When it’s noticeable it’s tiring, and when it’s not noticeable it’s dull. Even if his lyrics were half as clever as he appears to think they are, his awkward, stumbling flow is not the appropriate means of delivery for any kind of verbal gymnastics. Roth should take a lesson from his claimed hero Jay-Z, and study the effectiveness of simplicity.
The beats are mid-end heavy cleaned up backpacker fare built from clean rock guitar and acoustic drums. “I Love College” is for the most part indistinguishable from the late ’90s OPM skater-jam “Heaven is a Half Pipe”, but the remainder is aesthetically reminiscent of the more straightforward moments on the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head, but nowhere near as inventive. Dubiously, but appropriately, it sounds not much like contemporary hip-hop, but a lot like the shit the cargo shorts crowd is jamming on campus. So, score one for Asher Roth on the authenticity stakes, I guess. The best of the lot is a comparatively muted Don Cannon, who still manages to show his ease with a funk guitar on the not terrible “La Di Da.” Elsewhere, the hypnotic “Lion’s Roar” is propulsive enough to compensate for Roth’s featureless flow, although when Busta Rhymes shows up for a mostly unremarkable verse, he demonstrates what a good rapper could have done with this beat, even if he weren’t trying.
The most damning aspects of the album are not its dull parts, although there is no shortage of those. It is the few moments Asher Roth becomes interesting that reveal just how lackluster is the rest of his work. One of these occurs in “As I Em,” Roth’s strident rebuttal to detractors who claim he’s a weak imitation of Eminem. “I was in seventh grade when I heard the Slim Shady LP” he begins in a rare instance of specificity. He ruins the moment with some more of his dumb non-wordplay: “Yeah my mom brought it down when I was ironing/irony: getting out the wrinkles.” Hey Asher, that’s a non-sequitur, not irony. But the song has a few other moments that reveal Roth as a real person rather than a bit player in a Budweiser commercial. When he raps, “Just a little kid in middle school, I’ll sink my teeth in anything to think I’m cool/Riding the bus, I feel a rush from ‘I Still Don’t Give a Fuck’,” he almost manages to capture the wondrous thrill in stumbling across something new and mind-expanding. The song is a wash, though; he shares little with Em apart from a skin tone and nasal whine so his argument is unnecessary, and the beat sounds like the Red Hot Chili Peppers on a bad day, except Anthony Kiedis is more fun to listen to, and there’s no John Frusciante solo coming to redeem things.
More successful is “Fallin’,” the Roth version of the de rigueur introspective album closer. The hook is taken from a fellow mop-headed white kid, the Texan indie rock singer Ben Kweller, and Roth picks up on some of Kweller’s agreeable earnestness. “I remember way back, I mean way back, ages,” he says, rapping in a conversational tone far more beguiling than his usual flow. “Bowl cuts was the craze/I was crazy; long blond hair all over the place/and I’m pale as I ever was/baby face with a frame like a skeleton,” he continues, and you start wondering where this guy has been the whole album. He continues his self-deprecating reminiscence, arguing with his father over the merits of hip-hop vis-à-vis Bruce Springsteen and Earth, Wind & Fire, and recounting how, when in high school, he started to rap, his buddies reminded him of his whiteness.“What for real?” he jokes, and actually sounds likable.
And I suspect this is closer to the real Asher Roth. In his “Roth Boys” video, when he’s not posturing for the camera, he seems like a fairly normal guy. He’s not the contrived party animal of “I Love College,” but a dude you might actually want to party with. Every now and you’ll see him give a sleepy grin, and I can believe he’s just another kid from the suburbs who likes hip-hop and wants to be a part of it.
And that’s why the failure of Asleep in the Bread Aisle is so much deeper than I expected it to be. Roth hadn’t shown much indication he was a talented rapper, but I do believe he has the ability to create a good album. I’m sure many rap fans will think it a travesty if Roth gets a chance to release a second album, at a time when many far more skilled artists cannot get their first in stores. But if Roth does put out a follow up, I hope he’ll show us more of that kid hyped up about “Hard Knock Life” and “Still Don’t Give a Fuck.” I hope he’ll show us more of his sheepish drunk smile and less of his paper-thin, faux-lyrical party-narratives. I’ve clinked beer bottles at 4 a.m. with guys like Roth, and Asleep in the Bread Aisle doesn’t describe their lives. It’s a cop out.