Jonah Bromwich‘s rap name is Neon Boudeaux.
I’m in a proclaiming mood so let’s just get into it right now: Action Bronson’s Blue Chips is the best rap album of 2012 thus far. It’s not as if there’s much competition—the only real adversary I see is Q’s Habits and Contradictions but that album’s too small to rival this behemoth. Anyway, I don’t really want to talk about how absolutely fucking great Blue Chips is, though I’m sure I’ll rub up against that inescapable fact from time to time. What I really want to talk about is beauty and ugliness and the confluence of the two on Blue Chips.
Bam Bam himself is a good place to start. He’s a guy you’d notice and probably avoid on the street: bearded, fat and loud. His Terry Richardson photoshoot from a couple months back is simultaneously appalling and amusing—his watery eyes and tremendous girth somehow coming off as loveable when he smiles. He has a little bit of that Zach Galifinakis handsomeness, where, despite the weight, there’s symmetry in his face and a surprising grace in his stride. But there’s a reason that that photo of him from our top 10 was in black and white.
This mix of unsightly details and occasional prettiness is all over Blue Chips. Take the first song, “Pouches of Tuna.” Here’s a sampling of Bronson’s verse, one which goes from pretty to ugly within a couple of lines: “under the influence of fly shit I glide like Ovechkin, discus hoodie, puff hibiscus, balance be the the crispest, baby girl you’re wiling if you sniff this, you gotta take a piss test, piss right through your fishnets.” Bronson paints a nice picture, gliding being a particularly stately way to move and hibiscus a particularly elegant term for herb. And then his girl smells the weed and (this is somehow related) pees herself. Also, this is all over an incredibly elegant violin sample, but then makes way for the calcified grit of Roc Marciano. Starting to see where I’m going?
Eat the Rich
Another example, “Thug Love Story 2012” starts off with the following: a mite slowed down from Bronson’s normal flow. He raps, “She had the sweetest scent I ever smelt a woman have, skin would glisten like reflections off the bluest jag, she had a Jewish dad, and a Jamaican maid, started hanging with strippers and dropping her zippers and selling her pussy for paper to play.” But then, after more sordid details, and a sudden beat switch, we learn that this woman is Bronson’s one and only.
After he beats a case (arrested for hitting her, actually), he goes right home and “shivers at her sweet embrace.” It’s a beautiful phrasing, one that matches up with the vocal sample that started the song: “I only have eyes for you.” The song ends up being startlingly original and romantic, so, as you might expect, it precedes the most misogynistic song on the tape, the vile but addictive “Hookers at the Point.”
Blue Chips continues in this vein. This is a dirty album—dildoes and quifs, sodomy and salad tossing will often pop up without warning. His obsession with sex reminds me of Phillip Roth, frankly dirty and very funny. And yet, there’s an extraordinary tenderness present, as Bronson shows us the ugliest parts of life through rose colored glasses, and fueled by his twin obsessions, sex and food. The beats are incredibly evocative; at their best they swirl the idyllic fiftie sinto the dirty nineties, as if all the Archie comics romance of the drive-in theater had been teleported into Queensbridge in ‘92.
So what’s the point? Simply this: this constant mix of the very pretty and the very ugly makes Blue Chips at once disarming, disgusting and unforgettable. The eclectic listeners among you will remember how Annie Clark of St. Vincent was lauded last year for the surprising razor edges that nestled inside her crystalline song structures. Well, Bronson’s working on the same spectrum, in reverse. We expect so much ugliness at any given moment, that all the beauty is consistently surprising, even as it abounds.
The best song on the tape is “9-24-11.” It’s got a lovey dovey Dean Martin sample for a beat, composed of the kind of voices that sang as Pinnochio watched the stars. It’s (I mean this sincerely) lovely. It’s also on this song that you realize that there doesn’t have to be a separation between the beautiful and the ugly, that Bronson forces the two to make sense together. That he can start with the absurdly whimsical line “sign my name with the feather tap dance under the full moon” and a little later, close his eyes and go down on an unshaved woman, imagining that he’s eating “buccatina razor clams” and somehow, you actually want to keep listening. (Bronson also messes up his words in the song multiple times, but rather than re-record he lets them hang, leading into a chorus where he complains that his “brain is locked up” which leads me to believe that he screwed up on purpose or at least recognized that the mistakes worked for his purposes, which is, once again, a chair-pull which leaves you amused and happy.)
Beauty is a weird thing to talk about in rap and especially when you’re facing down a guy like Action Bronson who consistently talks about some seriously foul shit. But there’s no other way to speak about this tremendous record, one which conveys a Dostoyevsky-like sense of the sublime in the face of the ugly and doomed (and prostitutes, lots of prostitutes). On Blue Chips, the two essential cogs are the perfect combination of some beauty and a beast.