Album: What Does He Think He Is Doing?
Label: Kat Klaw
Rating: 6 / 10
Ah, the joys of the days when I can bring you a review of an new underground album which acts like a bottle of aspirin to the headache of unmitigated drivel that hip hop has now become. An album from an artist who is energising, breathtakingly original and riveting to listen to.
Unfortunately this isn’t one of those days. The weather is cloudy but not unpleasant, my lunch is bland but not tasteless enough that I’d stop eating it, and the CD on the table is “What Does He Think He Is Doing?” by NJ emcee Outthere.
Whoever asked the question that is the title can’t have been very bright, as its plainly obvious what Outthere is doing. It’s only so plainly obvious because it’s exactly what 90% of all underground solo emcees are doing. He is an above-competent emcee who can ride a beat well and write lyrics that are above the level of complete garbage, and he’s used these abilities to write an album which he feels represents himself. He’s decided that the majority of tracks on it will be battle/braggadocio tracks, while simultaneously deciding to claim that he’s not a battle/braggadocio rapper. He’s got one or two introspective, deep moments on there where the listener can feel the hardships he’s come through in his life. He’s got a danceable track with a bouncy beat. He’s got tracks which radically reveal that the world is not a nice place if you look hard enough, he’s got tracks dissing the fakes and snakes. He’s got tracks about the ladies, he’s got tracks berating the current wave of gangsta rappers. Sound familiar?
But whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s not decide if this glass is half-empty when all we’ve seen is that its contents seem identical to that of most other glasses. And anyway, Outthere knows he actually brings nothing out there at all, as he says on his website – “There has to be a way to connect to an artist besides their style and content alone. It’s their personality and own life… What I personally bring to the table in my effort to bring my music to the world is me…” Right. And he leaves no stone unturned in his quest to give the listener a full idea of the person he is, as he not only produces all of his whole 16-track album, he does the artwork too.
Previous beatmakers who have both rapped and produced on their solo albums have found it difficult to come dope both on the mic and behind the boards, either because they suck at one aspect (not mentioning any names – like, of ex-EPMD buffoons who have a tendency to fall out of windows, for instance – here) or because they just don’t seem to put as much effort into one aspect as the other. Fortunately, Outthere seems to have the capability to produce at a tolerable standard.
Did I say tolerable? Well when listening to ‘Travalin’, you find a more appropriate word is that so often overused superlative, “dope”. ‘Travalin’ is his “flagship track”, and the most introspective, featuring lyrics like “from the out looking in, they only want to see the worst I ever been”. The production is excellent here, using as the basis a acoustic guitar lick which is just ridiculously well layered over the rhythm, and a compact string section is brought in at certain moments for ambience. The emceeing here turns out to be as intriguingly appealing as the production, with Outthere spreading his vivid poetics with just the right amount of emotion to avoid stumbling into the overenunciated, cheesy world of the 2Pac soundalike.
Despite this undoubted bright spot, it seems that the aforementioned “tolerable” is the line that Outthere treads along – very precariously – for the rest of this album. ‘I Don’t Know’ is Outthere “ripping the mic with flows” over a somewhat dessicated beat. The flows in question are OK. He raps on beat. Mic presence? I guess. Lyrics? He’s no Too $hort, he’s got some decent stuff, but he’s not exactly ingenious on the lyrical front either. And the hook is a hateful, hateful specimen indeed.
While Outthere seems to be constantly capable of being satisfactory on the microphone, it’s on the production that he really slips up. The blubbering cardboard-funk on ‘When I Get It’ sounds like something George Clinton might have come up with, if he had been born in Yokohama rather than North Carolina, and had been locked in a padded cell with nothing but an cheap 1975 Korg keyboard. The beat to ‘Ladies Got Me Open’ sounds like what he would have produced had his keyboard been equipped with a “string” sound. Didn’t have that kind of tech back in the seventies, yet I doubt that even back then George would have been impressed with Outthere’s attempts to sing-rap on ‘Ladies Got Me Open’. You know when you’re on the train, and there’s some goon with headphones on singing along to his CD, horribly out of tune and catching unfavourable glances from the rest of the passengers? Well that goon is Outthere, and he’s in the process of recording, so don’t disturb him.
The way-too-hard-hitting drums and stodgy funk sounds are again present on ‘El Boracho’, the first of two Latin-tinged party joints on this album. It tries its best, but it’s more likely to have you raising your shoulders slightly in the air in the form of a shrug, than have you raising your hands in the sky. The other slice of Spanish flava – ‘Habla Ingles’ – is a lot tastier however. It has the traditional Latin instrumental accompaniment, over a rhythm where its inferiorities are somewhat obscured by the vivacious piano loop. Outthere’s lyrics here are the same as on the rest of the album – passable but nothing remarkable – but it doesn’t really matter, as all a track of this type requires is for its emcee to ride the uptempo beat, a task which Outthere completes with perfect precision.
Outthere does manage to carry tracks with his lyrics, on the worryingly infrequent occasions when his rapping isn’t obscured by weak production. On ‘Only It For Da Doe’, the dreary but listenable pianos manage to stay low-key enough for the – on this occasion – pleasingly impressive Outthere and guest Deece to get their message across effectively – that message being that the love hip hop once had has been replaced by money. Conversely the beat also manages to lend center stage to the hideous warbling rent-an-Usher guy on the chorus, but let’s just take the reasonably dope bits of this album and enjoy them while we can, huh? The album closes with a huge climatic juggernaut of a posse cut which rumbles along mightily, bringing emcee after emcee after emcee, none of who are particularly outstanding. Reasonable stuff, but really, the thought of writing home about it would never even enter your mind.
It’s sometimes hard to review albums because you feel like you’re kissing ass. It’s sometimes hard to review albums because you feel you’re kicking an already pathetic ass further into the gutter. However, this album was neither dope nor wack. This album is hard to review because it’s exceedingly difficult to pay attention to it. After every half-verse I found myself drifting off into not listening to it at all, nothing especially “grabs” you in any way apart from perhaps ‘Travalin’ and ‘Habla Ingles’. It’s reasonable, it’s nice, it’s average. And nothing more. The emceeing floats anonymously over the basic beats, while soaking quietly in its irritating but somewhat acceptable blandness. If there is something between the glass being half-empty and the glass being half-full, it is probably this album.