(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

History lesson - MC Paul Barman, Paullelujah! (2002)

Quirky and clever - erudite juvenalia

Working in the cube-farms of corporate America in 2002, pleasures were hard to come by and distraction was a blessing. I don’t even know where I first came across “Cock Mobster”, but I do remember being gobsmacked. It wasn’t the crudity of the juvenile humor as MC Paul Barman checked off women from his fantasy black book ; it was the mix of cultural references and wicked sharp rhymes. Name checking The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and KRS-One’s “Rappaz R.N. Dainja” in the same verse blew my mind. The combination of audacity and rolling rhymes in lines like “My dandy voice makes the most anti-choice granny’s panties moist” was staggering.

Immediately looking for more, I bought Paullelujah! directly from his web site. Then I found out that Prince Paul (De La Soul) and MF DOOM had produced some of the tracks. It wasn’t until a year or two later that I realized that Barman had provided the brief, but inspired interlude “Meet Cleofis Randolph the Patriarch” for Deltron 3030 (2000). Paullelujah! showed that his quirky delivery and the satisfying linguistic gymnastics were no fluke; the album was packed with more of the same thing that grabbed me in the first place: scatological humor aimed at a 14-year-old audience blended with superior lyrics and a crazy quilt of cultural allusions. Without a doubt, it was a flawed, uneven collection, but I had to respect Barman’s talent as a wordsmith and unbridled creative force.

The opening seconds of Paullelujah! immediately overturn the usual rap stereotypes. Instead of swagger and a heavy beat, Barman drops any pretense of cool and gleefully proclaims, “Check it out, man. It’s the best day of my life! The MC Paul Barman full-length is finally out,” over Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”, which he shortly hijacks and repurposes to hype the album title. It’s the first of many goofy moments and it does make it harder to take him seriously as a hip hop artist. But what should we expect? A white Jewish kid who graduated from Brown University is hardly likely to pull off a gangsta pose. Instead, Barman follows the age-old advice to write what he knows and that includes everything from literature he picked up in school to the uncomfortable contradictions of self-righteously liberal middle class politics. And mostly being a smartass. So, he skewers the local anarchist bookstore scene after name-checking John Cage and Jeff Koons in “Excuse You” and it’s all of one fabric.

When confronted with the question of cultural appropriation that faces every middle class, Caucasian rapper, Barman has his own unique response. On “Old Paul,” he tackles it head on, first asking “Is it ‘cause I go for the laugh?/ Because I’m not from the Ave? Because I target the fans that you wish you didn’t have?”. It’s a cogent point, hitting at hip hop’s discomfort with white popularity. But he follows up with some soul searching: “Had I made a mockery of a culture, like the Choco Taco?/ Was I to rap as France was to Morocco?/ Was I colon rap colon colon France colon Morocco?” Those lines do it all. They capture humor, racial guilt, a desire to be sensitive and also his geeky self-expression, breaking down the analogy to the format of an SAT question.

Paullelujah! is full of Easter eggs like this. He also manages to shoehorn in palindromes and incorporate a Buckminster Fuller song into “Bleeding Brain Grow”. If anything, Barman is a bit too eager to prove how clever he can be. He is sharp, but he often sacrifices meaning to satisfy a lyrical formula or he’ll drop into lowbrow humor to get a cheap laugh. This gives the album a weird kind of dynamic balance. His twisty rhyming passages demand a lot of attention and often trigger a sense that you know there’s a joke in there somewhere if you can take the time to unfold them. Then, about the time he’s worn you down enough to surrender to his multisyllabic onslaught, he throws a change up like “Burping & Farting.” To some extent, that makes Paullelujah! a novelty album, but it’s one that still stands the test of time; a dozen years after my first listen and I just caught the math mnemonic reference in “PEM Das EFX” from “Excuse You”.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

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