In Beats, Rhymes, and Life, the documentary on the seminal hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, group leader Q-Tip advises young artists to take their music seriously without taking themselves too seriously. That is amazing advice that too many rappers do not heed. As Pitchfork's Andrew Nosnitsky rightly points out, ever since Nas busted through the door with the classic album Illmatic, everyone's been taking themselves way too seriously, trying to make their own very classic, very "serious" album to measure up to Illmatic.
What's appealing about local group Parker & the Numberman is that they embody Q-Tip's advice. On their latest release, SM57 (you can download it here), a collaboration with producer Room E, they do this novel thing of not jocking Illmatic. Instead, citing the influence of De La Soul's De La Soul Is Dead and Madlib & MF Doom's Madvillainy, two classics that are fun, they turn out a loose, fun project of their own, characterized by artsy deviations, quirky samples and some pretty hilarious skits.
The first song I heard with Parker & the Numberman rhyming to a Room E beat is "Dalai Lama," off a wholly different collab project, BDP&T. "Dalai Lama" sounds like taking a trip above the clouds on another plane of existence, heading toward sunshine and enlightenment. SM57 returns to this same idea of flight and of taking a trip. The entire album is presented as a plane trip itself, using as its intro and outro a breezy tune that you'd hear on a cheesy 1950's airline commercial jingle trying to entice you into a Hawaiian vacation.
But instead of an island adventure, P&T and Room E take you pretty much all over the place. The opener, "Farmer's Heart," follows in the same vein as "Dalai Lama" with P&T seemingly having found Enlightenment (or at least some potent Woodstock-era drugs) and describing their surreal experience over some Eastern-tinged strings straight out of a Buddhist temple. "Air France" tells the story of a movie screenwriter who strikes it big both commercially and critically over a backdrop of generic easy listening muzak warped and transformed into a flickering blur of a beat. On the campfire spookiness of "Flash Flash," 10-19 the Numberman pontificates on the nature of darkness before Parker compares the group's musical talents to the act of hypnosis. It's kinda hard to pin down and it'd be pointless to try anyway. You'd be trying to figure out "Why?" when the trio sounds like they had a "Why not?" mentality. All that really connects the songs is a lighthearted looseness and a retro, almost-hippie vibe.
The comedic skits littered throughout add to the lighthearted feeling. The skits mostly show off Room E's comic skills as he deadpans about stacking money from selling drink tickets, advises the FBI to get off his genitals, and recalls how some "scrub" gave him a free CD after failing at trying to sell it to him. The skits are funny and they break up the music, helping again to keep things very loose.
The biggest strike against the album though is that, like the music, P&T often sound like they're coasting. I couldn't say any of the songs were necessarily bad (well, I guess "Flight Plans" is pretty expendable) but I also have to admit that I remember the hilarious "Beard Grower" skit more than any individual song, which is not a great sign. Nevertheless, it's a fun detour showing P&T at their most experimental.
Quan Vu Quan Vu is the founder and editor of local music blog sdRAPS.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 becoming BFF's on Facebook or e-mailing him directly.