Oh shoot, it’s Paul Thompson!
“Hi, I’m Regan—I don’t rap for free.”
It’s an uncomfortably hot day in Lincoln Heights, four months before Perfect Hair is to be released, and Busdriver and I are talking about A Tribe Called Quest. The rapper—born Regan Farquhar some thirty-odd years ago, here in Los Angeles—is of two minds on the subject. Of course, he’s a fan: “Those old Tribe records were amazing; the weird space [Q-Tip’s] voice occupies in the mix…it’s really lonely.” But Driver, at the time finishing up the eighth official solo album in a career that spans two decades, is wary of those who cling to bygone eras. “One thing about hip-hop is that people will hold onto records and think rap has to be that forever”, he says. “I’ll listen to records that hearken back to old times. But…” he trails off.
Perfect Hair is not a throwback record. Nor is it deliberately left-leaning; from the first thirty seconds, 2012’s experiment in avant-pop, Beaus$Eros, seems like a distant memory. There are scattered references to age (“My clothes are dirty, and I’m over thirty”) and to domesticity (“Exes think I’m dating hoes—I’m buying baby clothes”), but this isn’t the mid-life crisis album. In May, Driver warns that the record leans on the socio-political; in August, he tells me that the editing process trimmed more of the overtly politicized songs in favor of “the cathartic side”. (While Driver admits he “can’t not be political”, he qualifies what the term means: “I don’t have any message. I’m just pointing at shit.”) What’s left is a lean, careful distillation. Perfect Hair is not only the best Busdriver record since 2007’s RoadKillOvercoat, but also perhaps his definitive effort.
Since he first garnered national attention in the early aughts, Driver has been noted for his ability to rap both exceptionally well and, yes, exceptionally fast. The problem is that this fixation on his technical ability has served as a too-long preamble to any serious reading of his work. Combine that with an aversion to linear storytelling, and many of Driver’s most potent songs have yet to be properly unpacked by critics or fans. So as a study in craft, Perfect Hair is engrossing: The album proper runs just over forty minutes, but employs nearly all the tricks in the Project Blowed alum’s considerable skill set. There is a marginal pull back on the throttle of out-and-out rapping, which is ultimately welcome—but a very real menace still lurks behind the next break.
Busdriver never lets his voice or his pen become a blunt instrument: “Bliss Point” and “Upsweep” are emotive and playfully formless, but they bookend “Ego Death”, where Driver snaps upright and out-raps both Aesop Rock and Danny Brown. His delivery during the second verse of “When the Tooth-lined Horizon Blinks” is so razor-sharp as to be percussive, where on “king cookie faced (for her)” it’s languid and elastic. And while there’s nothing here quite as confounding as “Hot Sand” or “Nose Dive”, each stylistic bent is in service of a single sound, a unifying aesthetic. By the album’s last track, Driver is blending precise syllable daggering with an extended, harmonized bridge, and the union not only makes sense, but feels earned.
“I’m dope as fuck, I know what’s up / And I did not blow up.”
Perfect Hair’s most striking success is its ability to isolate and, in turn, delineate a song’s message without ever becoming obvious or broad. “Bliss Point”, an airy number boldly plugged early into the tracklist, recalls Mos Def’s “Fear Not of a Man” in its anthropomorphization of hip-hop, but it’s just a fleeting, tongue-in-cheek thought. Songs are driven by classically Big, Important ideas, but there is not a soapbox to be found. On “Colonize the Moon”, the speaker’s “business practices are Machiavellian”; later, he admits that “sexual appetites conflict with ambitions / But it’s important that my life resemble Pimp C fan fiction”. Simple? No. Effective? Absolutely.
The most marked departure from Driver’s old work, however, comes in tone. Regan Farquhar has always been funny, but past records have relied on a biting sarcasm to drive home points. On Perfect Hair, the language might still be cryptic, but the conversation is several degrees closer to reality, and the writing is almost entirely in earnest. “Upsweep” is built around a “kind of decay—with someone’s life, or someone’s career”, and it finds its stakes in Driver’s sincerity. For the hook on “Motion Lines”[i], he declares himself “impossible to love”, and it’s too po-faced to brush off as added color. In conversation, he briefly touches on this embrace of the real: “I feel like, in rap, the whole ‘real nigga’ ethos is wrong. A real nigga doesn’t mean you’re an aggressive motherfucker who hurts people. It means you’re someone who takes reality by its hair and runs into the sun with it, you know?”
When he does dip into the absurd, it’s for a deliberate purpose. At the heart of the album is “Eat Rich”, a Kenny Segal-produced cut that mines for the “diamonds in the loaves of bread” but sounds like a cartoon aside. Perfect Hair’s engine is its politics, and “Eat Rich” is the soy-based thesis. “I don’t have any special knowledge I’ve kept hidden”, Driver says. “But the difference between wealth and poverty is so vast. It’s absurd.” He pauses. “We don’t even understand a lot of shit that’s happening to us.” The record is titled for “any ideal that’s impossible to chase”; the racial connotations are intentional. “We’re expected to accept a lot of things that are…they’re wild.” “Retirement Ode” is peppered with an itemized (and exaggerated) list of expenses. When asked about them, Busdriver laughs. “I don’t know what people accept as normal.”
“I’m no one, and everywhere / I only breathe heavy air / But you knew that, come on.”
“I really embraced the whole jazz man thing,” Driver says, to no one in particular. We’re now fewer than ten days out from Perfect Hair’s release, and maybe he’s grown a bit anxious. “I really should have announced that a lot earlier—that my career was going to be full of reckless abandon.” But he can relax. The new LP is the kind of record that can serve as both a dynamic resume of its author’s abilities and a clean, coherent artistic statement. Perfect Hair is eccentric without being indulgent, weird, but always endearing. It even comes with Busdriver’s finest encore: Tucked away at the end, after “Colonize the Moon” fades into static and emptiness, is a hidden song. “Bone Structure”, complete with a triumphant hook from Open Mike Eagle, traces Driver’s life from the beginning—an uncle instilling leftist ideals and the Portuguese language; a young Regan Farquhar losing his job as a PA; “making baby formula out of underground dough”. It seems too good, too vivid to be true. Not to Busdriver. “Oh, yeah”, he shrugs. “That’s just my life story.”
[i] After its release, I asked Hellfyre Club principals Nocando, milo, and Open Mike Eagle for their favorite tracks on Perfect Hair. Nocan picked “Motion Lines”, saying: “It may be the most straightforward Bus has ever been. As much as I like the roller coaster his fast paced and highbrow writing style takes me on, I’m a sucker for a song about relationship problems. That’s complex in itself.” Mike Eagle narrowed his choices down to “Retirement Ode” and “king cookie faced (for her)”; milo was defiant in choosing “Upsweep”.