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Hustle and No Flow

What Happens When Nonrappers Grab The Microphone

Daniel Krall

By Tom Breihan | Posted 8/10/2005

John Cena is a mouthy young pro wrestler, small by World Wrestling Entertainment standards, who nevertheless won the WWE Championship from evil cowboy stockbroker John Bradshaw Leyfield at Wrestlemania 21. Troy Coleman is a tall black man with a penchant for rodeo fashion and who regularly performs with the omnivorous pop-country superstars Big and Rich. Tim Armstrong is the former guitarist of the legendary Bay Area ska-punk band Operation Ivy; he now leads the stalwart punk band Rancid and wrote a bunch of songs on the third Pink album, which is pretty good. Cena, Coleman, and Armstrong don’t have a whole lot in common, except each has released a major-label rap album in the last couple of months.

Even with hip-hop basically keeping the entire music industry afloat, major labels still have no idea how hip-hop works—if they did, Chamillionaire would have an album out by now. And so we sometimes get weird little curios like the Deion Sanders album or flukes like the two albums Los Angeles weirdo Aceyalone released on Columbia. As hip-hop tightens its stranglehold on mass culture, we’re going to see more and more bizarre experiments like these.

Cena’s You Can’t See Me (Sony) shows that this may not be a good thing. Hip-hop has been a part of Cena’s act since he realized he had to have an act, and his ghostwritten pre-match freestyles attacking his opponents are usually pretty funny. But put him in a recording booth and he sounds like an ass. His flow is clumsy and off-kilter; his brittle, snarly couplets roll up from the back of his throat and come out all muffled like half his mouth was taped shut. His voice has this forced, stone-faced hardness, like he’s deathly afraid of looking like a bitch. His lyrics are so indescribably bad that we could quote them all day: “Still walk tall with a staggered stance/ Plus I got a hold on the club like I was Baggar Vance;” “It’s OK to be hard and stay true, man/ But at the end of the day, we all human.”

And in his attempt to craft a straight rap album, Cena ignores his one unique selling point; he’s a wrestler. Sadly, he barely ever mentions wrestling. Cena could call out his foes, do tracks about blind refs, talk about how it felt when he won his first title. Instead, he says something about how he’s got class like a Ric Flair robe and then talks a whole lot of shit about football. Guh.

To make matters worse, every track features Cena’s equally talentless friend Trademarc, who isn’t even a wrestler and whose personality-free, uncomfortably doofy white-guy flow sounds almost exactly like Cena’s. Über-hard NYC street-rap legend Freddie Foxxx inexplicably shows up for four bored, unmotivated guest appearances; he must have a mortgage payment due. Respected underground producers such as Jake One and Eligh contribute beats, but every track is white-bread, utilitarian, straight-faced boom-bap that Cena wouldn’t be able to make interesting even if he didn’t suck. By all accounts, Cena truly loves hip-hop, but that doesn’t stop You Can’t See Me from being nothing but a shockingly misconceived WWE promotional tool.

Cowboy Troy has something else going on; no marketing department is weird enough to come up with anything like this guy. Coleman’s life is a Spike Lee racial-confusion comedy waiting to happen.

Loco Motive (Warner Bros.) isn’t the first album-length fusion of country and rap; Bubba Sparxxx tried it two years ago with Deliverance, a plaintive, introspective record with beats that reimagined country and bluegrass as warped 21st-century funk for a hip-hop audience. Loco Motive, by contrast, is aimed squarely at CMT, and it embraces the goofy, affable plasticity of mainstream country. Big and Rich, who produced the entire album along with Paul Worley, apparently used up most of their soaring, molten hooks on their own album, last year’s Horse of a Different Color. On much of Loco Motive, Troy just repeats the same dumb phrase over and over again (“Mm-hmm, got a crick in my neck”) and calls it a chorus. The producers pile on stomping fiddles and hair-metal guitar solos and Latin-jazz piano riffs, but they don’t seem to know much about rap, like how rap songs don’t need bridges, or how you need to push the drums to the front of the mix.

But Troy gets over purely on the force of his own personality. Coleman is the whitest-sounding nonwhite rapper since E-40, and most of his lyrics are slap-your-forehead dumb: “Serving everybody with the lyrical feast/ I’m not John Travolta, but I’m slicker than grease.” But Coleman works hard, and he’s not afraid to sound completely ridiculous. It’s virtually impossible to hear a single verse from Loco Motive without laughing out loud, and Troy’s amiable dorkishness is a welcome relief from the trap-house nihilism that dominates rap in 2005. By end of the album, when Troy is giving heartfelt shout-outs to every continent over the Billy Joel pianos and churchy organs of “Wrap Around the World,” it’s easy to overlook little things like rapping ability.

Too bad we can’t say the same for Haunted Cities (Atlantic), the second album from Tim Armstrong’s punk-rap side project the Transplants. The group’s 2002 self-titled debut succeeded on pure novelty and enthusiasm: surf-punk guitars over clattering boom-bap, the guy from Rancid talking about “you’re mad at the fact that my pockets stay fat.” The band made up its own genre as it went along, giddily throwing itself into the ridiculous. Three years later, the group has hair spray-commercial royalties pouring in, and it knows there’s a market for this stuff. As a result, Haunted Cities feels lazy and overconfident; its eager experimentation has become bored professionalism.

This makes it harder to forgive the group’s chief lyricist, Rob Ashton, a rapper with all the skill of John Cena and even less of the charm. Ashton raps in an awkward, lumpy, hoarse yell, and his lyrics are shockingly inept—“You never paid the rent off of cocaine and weed/ Man I dance with the devil, but I never get to lead,” goes one lyric. He’s also decided that it would be a good idea to start rapping about pimping, which only makes him sound like a deluded asshole. The “real” rappers who show up aren’t helping anything; there’s a reason why no one’s checking for the Boo-Yaa Tribe these days. Drummer Travis Barker, on loan from Blink-182, has discovered jungle, which is unfortunate.

So the fact that Haunted Cities remains even slightly listenable is a tribute to Armstrong, whose hungover gurgle and stormy, triumphant hooks almost save these dying songs. Armstrong’s production squeezes in “Gas Face” pianos and swing-revival horn stabs and Specials-level graveyard skank, and his voice has that broken Shane MacGowan vulnerability that elicits instant sympathy. So even if Haunted Cities falls flat on its face, which it does, it remains a heartening development. When major labels are willing to release and promote the music of hard-working boundary-jumping visionaries like Armstrong and Coleman, we can’t really complain.

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