By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Fear of a Black Tangent
Hip hop is probably the most self-referential musical style ever dreamt up (outside of meta-polka, which remains mostly unrecorded). So the fact that Busdriver's Fear of a Black Tangent is a hip-hop album about hip hop is no more newsworthy than the fact that Chrisi Taylor's Totally Hot Cardio is an exercise DVD about exercise. Nor is it terribly newsworthy that Fear of a Black Tangent is a frequently self-critical hip-hop album about hip hop. Superstars like Jay-Z, Eminem, and Kanye West have done very well using some of their verses for self-critique--though superstar career anxiety typically isn't as attractive as starving-artist career anxiety.
All that considered, the self-disclosure and self-critique on Fear of a Black Tangent is exceptionally caustic, funny stuff. The "I" in Busdriver's songs often isn't Busdriver himself, but like all good rappers and lots of modern novelists, he revels in blurring the line between artist and character. Check out some of the declarations/confessions that appear on Fear: "I'm the white main character's nigga friend in the ethnocentric teen movie"; "I talk of the common man and of the promised land/But I'm insincere and make the Marxist doze"; "I'm frustrated, my records don't sell, and I can't seem to book a decent gig/And my indie label is understaffed...I'm barely able to feed my kid/And I hate my pad, I don't want to visit/I need to put new brake pads on my Honda Civic"; "I'm a spacey shoe-gazer who stares at Pluto, but I'll be a jiggy jigaboo who goes through laser hair removal if it means that I could play my rent...and other bills." There's a comic pause between the word "rent" and the phrase "and other bills," the latter of which is delivered with a charmingly neurotic tone. Not for nothing has the L.A. MC been compared to Woody Allen.
Busdriver (born Regan Farquhar) remains relatively unknown ("most likely I'll sell more records in France," he notes on Fear's intro), but he's no new jack. His father, Ralph, wrote the screenplay for Krush Groove, and Regan started rapping at age nine. As a teenager in the '90s, Busdriver led a group called 4/29 (named after the '92 L.A. uprising), and started to build a small following as a member of underground hip-hop crew Project Blowed. His modest breakthrough as a solo artist came with 2003's excellent Temporary Forever, a funnier but less musically enticing album than Fear, which is produced with a spirit of jazzy adventure by Daedelus, Danger Mouse, Paris Zax, and others.
Speaking of jazz, Busdriver cites Lambert, Hendricks & Ross leader Jon Hendricks as a prime inspiration--an influence that comes through in the MC's fleet-tongued (well, sometimes indecipherable) delivery and erudite internal rhymes. Thanks to his fondness for non sequitur, Busdriver has been reasonably compared to Kool Keith--but on Fear he also brings to mind actor Giancarlo Esposito (on the album's intro), Peter Gabriel (on the droning art-hop tune "Low Flying Winged Books"), Soul Coughing's M. Doughty (on "Reheated Pop"), De La Soul (on the bouncy "Avantcore"), and a bunch of spoken-word artists whose names I can't remember.
Despite Busdriver's open-book policy on insecurity, this guy isn't a self-pitying nerd--he's just smart, plus confident on the mic, classically handsome, and a keen observer of bohemian sins and peccadilloes. Fear of a Black Tangent is full of the same kind of insular, small-scene studies that characterize the Hold Steady's similarly clever records. That'll be a turnoff for some (outsiders, generally), and great fun for others (insiders, generally). But like the Hold Steady's Craig Finn (whose songs I tend to admire more than enjoy), Busdriver uses his tiny studies to make larger points. Specifically, he's made an album about frustration and opposition, about integrity and failure, and about being a thinker in an inane, funny, screwed-up world.