Hip-hop is way too serious. It seems that if rappers aren't trying to look really cool with fly clothing or fly jewels or fly girls, they're trying to look really hard by talking about drug dealing and killing dudes. And then, you have all those other rappers trying to look really righteous by trying to "save hip-hop" (because clearly, the death of a musical genre is the No. 1 humanitarian crisis in the world today). Oftentimes, I just want them all to chill a little bit.
Enter Dominique Gilbert, aka El Gun Legro. El Gun is teeming with personality and humor. He often rocks a Little Richard-esque hairdo with a front ponytail. You might also catch him in his superhero costume wearing nothing but a Speedo and snowboarding goggles. In one interview, he talked about eventually producing El Gun Legro-branded condoms and condiments. He's not afraid to show his sense of humor, even if it's at his own expense.
Thankfully, he's able to translate that same personality into his music. His debut album, The Return of the Future, is a hodgepodge of disparate ideas jabbing in every direction to escape the confines of El Gun's head. The opening track, "Spaceship," is rapper braggadocio centered around outer-space wordplay and Star Trek references. Similarly, "The Wiz" plays on favorites from the fantasy genre like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz. After his mom turns off his phone because he isn't paying his bill, El Gun details his various, failed Internet exploits on "On My Computer."
It might seem gimmicky at first. After all, what separates El Gun Legro's character from, say, Microphone Mike? The difference is that while Microphone Mike awkwardly parodies hip-hop's lack of creativity as an outsider, El Gun works within the language of hip-hop, subtly criticizing wack rappers simply by being more creative than them. El Gun's lyricism is at once sharp and quick-witted but also goofy and self-deprecating. His humor, too, is rooted in hip-hop and black culture. If you didn't get the inherent humor of a grown man writing a song about getting cut his phone cut off by his mom, take "First Class."
"First Class" switches from a by-the-numbers "song for the ladies" (complete with rather tepid keys) in the first verse to being that same song turned on its head in the second. Using airline-inspired wordplay, El Gun spits this pretty standard line, "You're fly as hell, did the pilot give you lessons?" the he spends the next verse completely undermining his game with self-deprecating humor, bragging about his jewelry (cubic zirconium); the wealthy property he owns around the world (hotels and houses from Monopoly; and his fly clothes (a Speedo and $5 three-piece suit). He flips this rap-song archetype -- with its familiar boasts of wealth and clothing -- upside down to great effect. With soothing horns and classical piano, "Goodday" is another by-the-numbers rap song archetype -- the inspirational/motivational rap song -- except that in El Gun's hands, it turns into a new way to clown on various characters in detail, from broke 'hood rats wasting money on booty waxes to World of Warcraft-obsessed nerds who can only get dates on eHarmony (clearly, a diss to all hip-hop bloggers). One of his last pieces of advice: "For you who says they are stanky all the time. One solution: soap."
Despite his sarcasm, El Gun himself gets much coaching from producer Jaz Williams of Batkave Studios. With Jaz's background in R&B, the album has a very polished quality. Live instrumentation abounds. Singers handle most of the hook duties. Songs follow proven song structures. It would actually be too clean, to be honest, but with El Gun, it works. There's this constant tension between El Gun's decidedly weird personality and Jaz's steadfast professionalism. You get the sense that if the power shifted too much in either direction, the whole project would fall apart. As it is, Jaz seems able to form songs out of El Gun's concepts. "Chinese Connection" is built around the sort of strings and flutes that you hear in old kung fu flicks on VHS. The aforementioned "On My Computer" brings back the talk-box for "Computer Love"-esque comedic effect. "007" features looming strings and horn stabs that characterize espionage films. The production gives life to El Gun's varied ideas.
While there is some controversy over El Gun Legro's SDMA nomination this year in the Best Hip-Hop category, hip-hop fans should at least be pleased with the quality of his music. Whereas hip-hop acts often seem to get nods from awards shows simply for being different, El Gun Legro happens to be both different and good. That's not a bad thing. The Return of the Future is a strong debut from a likable character with a unique personality and sense of humor. If all rappers would admit to basically playing character roles themselves, the world would be a better place.
You can find El Gun Legro's The Return of the Future on iTunes and on CD Baby here.
Quan Vu Quan Vu is the founder and editor of local music blog SD Raps.com. He has also written about local and national hip-hop acts for San Diego CityBeat and the San Diego Reader. You can nerd out on rap trivia by following him on Twitter or e-mailing him directly.