Wednesday, February 04, 2009

P.O.S. - Never Better

Never Better (Rhymesayers, 2009)
Grade: B+

Download: P.O.S. - "Goodbye"

Cross-published on Stereo Subversion

“Sorry I took so long.” These are the first words spoken on Minneapolis punk-rap artist P.O.S. third solo album, Never Better. Indeed, it’s been almost three years to the month since the release of his previous record, 2006’s Audition. However, it’s not like P(issed).O(ff).S(tefan) has been slacking off this whole time.

There’s also his efforts with the Doomtree collective, the socially conscious nonet Doomtree (they get props on track two) to which P.O.S belongs. They finally released their self-titled debut record in July of last year. A part from that outfit, P.O.S plays and sings in punk proper MPLS band Building Better Bombs. Even just reading his resume makes one exhausted. Essentially, P.O.S. is like a choc-oholic, but for punk and post-rock flavored rap.

The press materials note that P.O.S wrote much of Never Better in a moving car. If nothing else, Never Better is propelled by a serious sense of momentum. So it would seem that there’s a modicum of truth behind that PR nugget. He delivers each line as if he’s making up for lost time. Thing is, as the previous paragraph should indicate, that time wasn’t really lost in the first place.

He’s a guy who throttles every nanosecond, making life count. That persistence, in turn, makes Never Better two-thirds thrilling and one-third exhausting. Listeners can easily admire the rapper’s gumption, but for the sake of his record, one wishes that he’d just take a little bit of a breather every once in a while.

Once he does settle into a mid-tempo groove, though, the results are spectacular. “Purexed” and “Graves (We Wrote The Book)” suggests that Scottish crescendo rock Mogwai are due for a rap rediscovery, while “Savion Glover” skips along on a stinging, stuttering beat that moves like its namesake. Never Better is also compelling when he’s playing around with spare arrangements and total silence, as on leaked single “Drumroll,” a track that cleverly uses a drum fill as its sample, and later album track “Get Smoke,” which marries Fugazi-esque stop-and-starts with classic-rock style riffage.

P.O.S has described his music as “rap you can skateboard to,” and that youthful energy translates well when exploring more experimental instrumental territory. However, it also becomes tiresome and clichéd when it is applied to anthemic sloganeering like “Goodbye” or “Low Life Low Light.” Because P.O.S begins Never Better with a series of songs that represent thoughtfully conceived post-hop, P.O.S’ turn toward the slowly forming conventions of underground rap becomes really disappointing. Addressing a myriad of left-wing social concerns, these pair of tracks showing up in the middle of the record read like radical blog-posts remade as backpacker hip-hop. To quote Alec Baldwin’s meta self-deprecation in 30 Rock: “If I wanted for someone to tell me what I already know, I’d read the Huffington Post.” Brother Ali has a much better command of this type of material.

That said, those missteps are only two, and Never Better quickly regains its footing slowly by dialing down the tempos and making the soundscapes over which P.O.S. raps more atmospheric. “Optimist (We Are Not For Them)” and “Never Better” both boast cold, cool synth lines and trip-hop beats, while “Terrorish” chugs with a distorted bass line, and an echo-laden guitar line.

The last few songs here, as well as the masterful first few, play like the earnest young cousin of El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. But like all earnest young men, there are all too common occurrences of naïve rabble-rousing. Never Better? Not quite, but with this assured third solo album, P.O.S finds himself closer and closer to getting there.

P.O.S. MySpace Page

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