There was a time when a nerdcore artist couldn't drop a demo without me knowing about, but that was long ago and in a world that was noticeably smaller. Nowadays I catch stuff as I can. Sometimes I am what you might call an early adopter (such as with Seattle's native sons Southside and the fell prince himself Schaffer the Darklord), other times I am almost unforgivably late to the party.
Such is the case with Bazuuka Joe. He's a cat I recognize more by name than by output. Still, when I got a chance to snag an early review copy of his new full-length, the first from burgeoning nerdcore label Roll A Twenty Records, I knew enough to jump on that shit.
The Red Pill kicks off with the inspired words of Larry Fishburne (in the form of "The Choice…") before easily transitioning to the album's first song "24-A-Pop Revisited." It's a throwback to Joe's original "24-A-Pop" with some added lyrical firepower from The Ranger and Fatty Goodness. The production also sounds significantly brighter, and it really starts the album off with a bang. This trails into a solid follow-up, the disc's title track. "The Red Pill" hits hard with a sharp beat and it really allows Bazuuka Joe to display his unique verbal skills.
"Come Equipped" brings us into the real meat of the album with the help of Scrub Club's King Pheenix. Joe's flow isn't quite up to par with the previous offering, but KPX (seemingly channeling Bubba Sparxxx mid-verse) adds a nice secondary vocal texture that helps pull it together. "Revenge" is an early high point that eschews the album's recurring theme of technological apocalypse in favor of a true nerdcore anthem. Rather than drop Thundercats references or rewrite Star Wars as hip-hop allegory, it instead sharpens social awkwardness and unbridled nerd rage into a perfect point.
Things quickly head back to the Matrix with "Zion, Hear Me!" I'm always a little weary of songs so firmly centered on that property – I've never really been a fan – but Joe manages to make the narrative relatable even to us outsiders by layering movie samples, an old school beat and an atmospheric lead. It actually contrasts nicely with the hopelessness of "Revenge," and paves the way for "The Last Human City." It's a joint that kicks off like a frenetic anime theme song, but struggles a bit in its verse transition. Still, once Bazuuka Joe starts spitting, things get back up to speed. Despite his lack of a snappy stage name, contributor Chris Williams tosses in some fantastic rhymes with an understated swagger aided by perfectly layered vocal multi-tracking.
While the ending of "The Last Human City" feels a tad forced, "Keep Flyyin’" brings in the high end that, coupled with an addictive vocal hook and a delicious guest verse from Jod1, make it another instant classic that packs hip-hop spirit to spare. "Built 4 This" pulls in delicate keys and a heartfelt spoken-word affirmation to kick shit off, but it's Joe's own story, delivered in well-paced verse, that drives this powerful track home.
"DarkSideClassic" once again switches gears with an oddly placed voicemail rant about critical cinematic failure Legion before getting all aggressive with "Wreckless." This one doesn't quite hit the high water mark lyrically-speaking and the guest vocals (this time provided by A-Dub), while soaked in character and on-mic dramatics, aren't exactly my favorite of the album. Still, Black Contingency Productions pulls things together so beautifully on the instrumental end that it comes through as a smoothed-out banger that can't be denied.
The Red Pill starts its final decent with "To the Fullest," a pledge of allegiance to the nerdcore nation. Though not as dynamic as some of the album's other offerings, it's a sentimental favorite that boasts a tight guest spot from Deafinition, a silky-smooth beat and Joe's promise to never "pull a Lars or a chris." It's an earnest love song to both nerdcore as a style and hip-hop as a lifestyle that should easily hit the mark with geeky heads.
The final track, "The Gong Show," pulls in equal parts high-end funk and laid-back flow to end an album like it ought to be ended: with props to all those who offered support along the way. Alternating between loving shout-outs and some of the project's sharpest couplets, Joe ends The Red Pill as it began, with a variation on a theme. Just as "The Choice…" isn't your typical album intro and "DarkSideClassic" is far from the expected mid-album skit, "The Gong Show" succeeds as an album-closing shout-out joint by fucking with the formula. It's a concept that Joe carries throughout the disc, and it helps to make for a truly satisfying listening experience.
Though the heavy reliance on guest rappers both from within the Roll A Twenty roster (Fatty Goodness) and without (most notably Scrub Clubbers like The Ranger, Deafinition and KPX) seemed an odd choice for the breakthrough full-length of both a fresh new face in nerdcore and a brand new netlabel, it's hard to argue with the results. Plus, when you've got an artist like Bazuuka Joe, a guy who can hold his own next to practically any collaborator, it doesn't hurt to diversify. Further to his credit, Joe not only raps well, but writes with genuine insight and conviction. Whether he's channeling his inner fanboy or pondering his culture, Bazuuka Joe does it with both power and finesse. And in the end, it truly helps to set him apart as an artist and to establish a lofty benchmark for Roll A Twenty.
As for me, I find myself in the fortunate position of being a brand new Bazuuka Joe convert just waiting for more. Take The Red Pill when it drops tomorrow to see what I mean.
"Do you know how it feels to have to put on a mask and / hide your true self 'cause you might get your ass kicked?"