Outside the Rio Olympic Arena, the equatorial winter of Rio de Janeiro
is so temperate that the beaches remain covered in sunbathers,
prostitutes still dab at beads of sweat on their temples deep into the night,
and young boys who should be in school zealously hawk
bottles of water and Coca-Cola at passersby. But, inside the overly air conditioned stadium, the competitors in the 2016 Men’s Automobile Gymnastics finals do graceful plyometric warm-ups to keep their muscles from seizing. Action Bronson strips off his velour tracksuit and throws it to his coach Kool G Rap, who whispers final encouraging bromides into the gymnast’s ear. “C’mon, son, fuck these dudes up.” In the NBC studio, Bob Costas adjusts his toupée, kicks his tiny loafers onto the desk, and shouts to a caffeine-addled intern “Hey, you little ‘Public Ivy’ snotnose,
light my cigar and shut up. I don’t not pay you to hear you talk.”
While rap fans stumble through the endless night that is To Pimp A Butterfly, Action Bronson’s major label debut, Mr. Wonderful, has mercifully finished its period of gestation in the Albanian Jew’s perverted mind. Since Bronson’s last full length release (Blue Chips 2, in November 2013), his star has only continued to ascend; the gourmand’s knuckleheaded back-and-forth with childhood best friend Big Body Bes on Vice’s Fuck, That’s Delicious has exposed him to an audience widening faster than the rapper’s own waist. As the singles for Mr. Wonderful were released, my hope for the album (which I think mirrored that of most critics) was a work that maintained Bronson’s freewheeling/freeballing spirit without too many grabs for more mainstream attention.
Bronson stands at the edge of the spring mat, 300 pounds of lamb shank crammed into a compression tank top and a tiny pair of shorts woefully unprepared for the task of covering the gymnast’s Rubenesque figure.
In the middle of the mat stands a 1989 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z, its glossy, flawless black paint reflecting every light in the arena. The crowd silences. Bronson takes a deep breath. Suddenly, he springs forward, a fleshy boulder careening downhill. After a high hurdle, a front handspring, and a twisting layout, Bronson lands in a handstand on the IROC’s door, a ton and a half of late 80’s muscle car listing under the weight of the plank-straight gymnast.
On opening track “Brand New Car,” Bronson claims that he’s the only one sipping mango lassi in the bullpen (Who else would it be?), and, like a young Mariano Rivera, Bronson comes out of the gate throwing flames. Mark Ronson’s pop-schlock instrumentals for “Brand New Car” and “Baby Blue” are probably the apex of Bronson’s commercial viability, but he never self-censors his lyrics for greater accessibility. Inherent to Bronson’s success as an artist is his unrestrained reverence for pop culture–what is Bronson, if not the type of man to rap about steroidal 1990’s baseball stars, and then tattoo the still-prevalent Oakley M-frame sunglasses on his forearm as a symbol of outsized, vein-popping success? Roughly, the first third of Mr. Wonderful is mixtape-style Bronson despite A-list producers Ronson, Alchemist, and Noah “40” Shebib. This is the version of Bronson who once inspired a highly educated, very liberal female friend to have me rewind “Twin Peugeots” so she could hear Bronson rap “Shorty doing kegels for her cunt muscle” one more time.
Every visible muscle fiber in Bronson’s body twitches. Even for an athlete of Bronson’s caliber, defying gravity necessitates every ounce of focus and strength he can muster. As he slowly lowers his legs into a split, his ample red beard pointed skyward, a G Pen falls from his tank top, lightly grazing his chin, and hits the floor. Bronson wavers, almost falling back-first into the buttery leather interior of the IROC. An audible gasp from the crowd. The Chinese judge faints. The Ukrainian judge nods approvingly.
Kool G Rap clutches his face in disbelief.
It’s immensely commendable that Bronson didn’t compromise his personality on Mr. Wonderful, even with heightened stakes and greater financial backing, but the middle of the album has severe warts. Between “Thug Love Story 2017,” “City Boy Blues,” and “A Light In The Addict,” we only get a single rapped verse in twelve minutes. That’s a quarter of the album’s running time! Bronson’s off-key, adenoidal singing is, in limited doses, humorous, but Bronson overplays the joke. Even “Baby Blue,” with its charming musical theater piano refrain and triumphalist horns, is somewhat marred by Bronson doing his best Billy Joel impersonation.
In the midst of what passes for mayhem in Olympic men’s gymnastics, Bronson, who successfully lowered his legs without more drugs falling out of his spandex, is now standing on the driver’s side door of the car. He bends and uncorks a double front flip with a twist over the IROC’s t-top, landing gracefully in the passenger seat. The Chinese judge faints again. The Australian judge, overcome by the immense eroticism of the moment, begins furiously masturbating. No one notices. Bob Costas’ cigar falls from his mouth, and his toupée explodes into a ball of flames.
When Bronson abandons the Piano Man schtick and fully gives into the hallucinogen-addled rock star he most obviously resembles is when Mr. Wonderful best fulfills its promise as an album. “Only In America,” produced by Party Supplies, sounds like a construction site butt rock classic, except those don’t usually include lines like “Big bearded Buddha banging bitches in Bermuda.” The spaced-out prog rock duo of “Galactic Love” (on which he hilariously claims to be “typecast as a romantic lead”) and instrumental “The Passage [Live in Prague]” transition into “Easy Rider,” the LSD headband-as-crowning wreath of Mr. Wonderful. It’s no small feat to make rap and rock synthesize palatably, but Bronson’s eccentricity, coupled with excellent production, doesn’t make the music sound like a rapper unintentionally impersonating Spinal Tap. It sounds like a rapper who leads Spinal Tap, with a wink, a nod, and a tinfoil-wrapped cucumber jammed down the front of his leather pants.
Bronson opens the passenger-side door and exits the car to 15,000 fans standing and applauding. Rather than giving an appreciative bow to the judges, the judges give appreciative bows to Bronson, none bothering to numerically rate his performance. Bronson doesn’t wait for the medal ceremony– he walks off the mat, daps Kool G Rap, and, with a blond Slovenian gymnast under his right arm and a blonder Bulgarian gymnast under his left, begins to strut out of the arena. As Bronson reaches a side door, an NBC reporter grabs him and breathlessly asks “What inspired your performance today?” Bronson, halfway out the door, framed by Rio’s creamsicle sunset, heavenly rays splicing the clouds and backlighting his beard, answers “Axl Rose, Jason Giambi, Pimp C, John Starks. And, of course, Flushing, Queens, baby. We out here.”