"Remember sixth grade?/Pencil fights and thumb wars and/Bikes? Yeah, well I still do that shit."
That line, from "Sarah Silverman" off of P.O.S.'s 2004 debut, Ipecac Neat, keeps running through my head as I sit in Stef Alexander's makeshift home studio. I'm watching a few of the six videos Alexander and a devoted crew of friends made over six days, and the very room I'm sitting in figures prominently in one. It's more than a little odd to be watching a video of P.O.S. working on his computer on the computer he's working on. In another segment, tiny Xeroxed photos of P.O.S. and the rest of the Doomtree crew drive toy cars off of cardboard jumps and through Matchbox traffic.
As clever and professional as these videos look—and they really do look stupendous—it's clear that Alexander is having fun: He's a little kid trapped in the body of a grown-up trapped in the body of a skater, a punk, a rapper. At this point in his career, the lines have blurred so much it's best to put aside reducing P.O.S. and his body of work to its constituent parts; his new record, Never Better, is the work, ultimately, of a musician, of a human being.
As the tiny cars zoom around on the screen, "Optimist (We Are Not for Them)" makes its case for being the heart of P.O.S.'s new record. The line that particularly sticks out comes early: "Never better than the work/Than the toil and the reap." It's a creed, an echo of the Protestant ethic viewed through the lens of a strident individualism that demands you make decisions for yourself alone. As the chorus affirms, "We make our own and if they don't feel it/Then we are not for them (and that's cool)."
When it came to making the songs, P.O.S. did things a little differently this time around after he lost his first draft of the record. "Usually I write a lot of verses and make a lot of beats, kind of alternating," he explains. "This time, I lost all the original beats I was making when my computer and MPC [sampling drum machine] got stolen. This was last February. So I started over again and spent a lot of time crafting the sounds and bouncing them off [Doomtree producer] Lazerbeak, who was answering back with the exact same thing. I'd play him something crazy and then he'd play me something crazy."
Lazerbeak and P.O.S. split production duties on the album roughly 40/60 (with a couple of tracks by Paper Tiger and MK Larada), and the outline for the creative process was simple: "Brand new," says Alexander. "I wanted it to be brand new. And that's what I set out to do: Make beats, and if they didn't feel like totally new shit, then scrap the beat."
Although the most obviously adventurous tracks are "Purexed," with its majestic, hyper-rush of a chorus, and the title cut, built around an apocalyptic piano dirge, the sonically challenging nature of the album is best expressed in "Out of Category," where the kick drum pushes speakers to crack and break, occasionally crossing paths with a digital hi-hat so sharp it nails you in the ear like an ice pick. This is music-making that has more in common with the sound-as-physical-presence of electronic artists like Autechre than traditional hip hop.
The conceptual nature of "Out of Category" is no accident. While most rappers are content to get a beat they like and do their thing, Alexander's songs often come from ideas more than hooks. Asked about the off-kilter, Middle Eastern-inflected sample that "The Basics (Alright)" is built around, Alexander replies, "I don't want to tell you where I got it, but it's a song I tried to sample and use on my first record. Same with 'Drumroll': Those two were beats that I had conceptually thought about for years but didn't know how to go about making them until this pass around."
The video for "Drumroll (We're All Thirsty)" matches the track's manic and inexorably rolling snare drum to frantic shots of P.O.S. running through blasted-out buildings, dodging gunfire, and ducking into doorways as explosions erupt all around him. It's the kind of video every kid is making in his head when he runs around with a stick standing in for a rifle, and watching it, you can feel the sense of make-believe risk and childlike seriousness that masks real abandon and joy at play.
That sense of play, of making up a game to break the rules, of reveling at the borders between things that adults hold apart—that is what most defines Never Better, and not some prefabricated notion of combining rap and punk. More fundamental to P.O.S.'s music than the D.I.Y. ethic of hardcore or the limber wordplay of hip hop are the words made famous by Frank Sinatra: "For it's hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind/If you're young at heart."
P.O.S. plays a CD-release show with Sims and Mictlan + Lazerbeak on SATURDAY, FEB. 28, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775