Art by Coup d’Oreille
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Will Hagle‘s haircut is like Dominican folk art.
By announcing the album in the same tweet he declared his freedom from Atlantic Records, Action Bronson established White Bronco’s defining narrative before listeners had a chance to contextualize it themselves. It could never have been anything but a return to his independent roots. Before the album came out, he also ended his professional relationship with Vice, publicly accusing the company of under-appreciating and undervaluing him.
Although his major label albums weren’t bad and Vice seemed to mesh well with Bronson’s personality and entertainment industry ambitions, his total shedding of contractual obligations in conjunction with the release of a new independent project indicates that he at least believes himself to be entering a new era of refreshed productivity. He even painted his new album art himself. White Bronco, consequently, sounds like an album devoid of unnecessary outside influence. It sounds that way because that’s what Bronson wanted us to hear, but also because he delivered on his promise.
Bronson’s breaking free of contractual obligations didn’t change him as much as it might have other artists, because his entering into the deals didn’t alter him much in the first place. Throughout his tenure at the labels, he maintained his distinct personality and DIY aesthetic. Only a Queens-born-and-bred, husky and overconfident chef with Albanian heritage could rap the way Bronson does. That’s why his favorite refrain, concise yet explanatory, has always been relevant and obvious on all of his projects: “It’s me.”
The label’s main missteps with Bronson were trimming down the level of “me” that Bronson put out into the world, expecting Mr. Wonderful to carry itself as a front-to-back traditional “debut” studio LP, and thinking Blue Chips 7000 would build upon the mixtape-era energy he possessed during the recording of the series’ two previous installments. Limiting the amount of music Bronson released could have, however, paradoxically worked to the rapper’s advantage. The labels helped extend his career without over-saturating, just in time for him to return now to another more prolific streak as an independent artist.
Even though Bronson seems to want White Bronco to be perceived as looser and freer than his most recent releases, it actually serves as a more cohesive embodiment of his sound and style than any other album in his discography. Bronson raps over samples of guitar-based music, crafted into beats by common collaborators such as Harry Fraud and Party Supplies. The title track features the live recorded work of the Special Victims Unit, his former TV show’s house band, as filtered through the production tools of Daringer. Knwxledge produced three tracks, and Samiyam produced one. The beats, if those producer names aren’t indicative enough, are great. Bronson delivers his bars in the same stream-of-consciousness manner, with consistent short bursts of vivid imagery.
The phrase “It’s me” never sounded so palpable.
Bronson by himself excels at one vague yet important element of album-crafting that his label must have failed to understand: lateral cohesion. “Lateral cohesion” is a term that television writer Mike Upchurch coined in his UNLV master’s thesis The Poetics of Sketch Comedy. Upchurch explained in the thesis that because sketch comedy shows like SNL or Monty Python’s Flying Circus feature short comedic segments without a traditional underlying narrative, there have to be other, subtler elements that tie the entire show together. In some episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for example, every sketch would end with the police raiding the entire cast of characters. There’s no through line, per se, but viewers still got the sense that the short scenes were all interconnected through subtly consistent elements.
White Bronco lacks the traditional song structure that a major label would, historically, deem as comprising the formulaic idea of what an “album” should be. Bronson has never been one to delve into convoluted concepts or narratives, and the songs on his albums tend to be primarily unconnected. He’s a skilled improvisational rapper, and his best songs succeed because of the strong bars within them rather than because they’re well-crafted as a whole. Even Mr. Wonderful, his or his label’s most conscious attempt at doing the opposite, ended up sounding disjointed.
The lateral cohesion on White Bronco, however, ties the album together better than any previous release, all relating back to Bronson’s declaration of “It’s me.” Not only do each of the beats match the same tone, but there’s a horse neighing noise that reminds the listener of the album title every once in a while. The lyrics circle back to the same themes, and after a few listens it’s clear that Bronson recorded several of these tracks while watching the World Cup this summer.
On “Mt. Etna” he repeats the phrase, “I be going through some shit that’s why I smoke a lot,” before ending with a short skit outro of him resisting weed and then easily caving in. The hook for “Picasso’s Ear” is, “Don’t wanna drink, don’t wanna smoke, don’t wanna smoke no more. You fucking stupid? I’m tryna do all that shit.” Bronson may have had a joint affixed to his lips for the majority of his career, but White Bronco balances the jokes and braggadocio with brief yet poignant instances of pain and uncertainty.
Although the underlying, connecting thematic threads are easier to detect on White Bronco, the album isn’t too far out of the ordinary compared to what longtime listeners might expect. The Mayhem Lauren and Big Body Bes guest verses are evidence enough of that. The only other credited featured spot, aside from someone named Yung Mehico, is, however, a relative anomaly. A$AP Rocky joins Bronson for “Swerve On ‘Em,” which is decent enough for a closing track, but sounds closer to what a major label might want a Bronson track to sound like than something he wanted to make on his own.
Production-wise, “Swerve On ‘Em” deviates from White Bronco’s overall sound, but Bronson’s lyrics once again touch on the lateral cohesion tying the album together. Bronson ends the song by repeating Rocky’s refrain: “Just notice me, baby, just notice me.” If that’s all he wants from the general public, he’s achieved it by being himself, and letting his personality come across through his music.
Bronson has always been a freewheeling character, beloved for his unpredictable live shows and video appearances as much as his recorded musical output. His initial ascent to popularity coincided with the Odd Future wave, where rap returned once again to the punk-influenced approach that’s cycled in and out of popularity throughout the generations. White Bronco might seem better because of the preconceived notion that it represents his return to total artistic freedom. It’s impossible to know for sure, because no matter what, that narrative was already written.
Even with those expectations, however, the album succeeds because Bronson made sure that his own personality and unique point of view can be detected at a consistent rate throughout the short 11 tracks. There’s too much hilarious lyrical imagery to write down here, because listening to Bronson recite his own words over production he enjoys is the preferable mode of consumption.
It wouldn’t make sense, because it’s not me or you. It’s him.