Big Rock Candy Mountain Man
Kevin Rudolf is the latest in a long string of semi-charmed, self-impressed white guys
The prevailing mood on the mountaintop is one of righteousness, most awesome and triumphant. Rarified air crackles with expectant electricity as a storm gathers out of the ether: a tauntingly addictive guitar riff erupts like a headwind, keyboard motifs gust in twitchy neon time, an ax-wielding sideman-to-the-stars breaks his silence. "I see your dirty face/ High behind your collar/ What is done in vain/ Truth is hard to swallow," Kevin Rudolf exhorts with shouting over-assurance, kicking off a string of confident, aspirational banalities both subsumed and validated by the world-beating pop swirl grinding beneath. A raspy Lil Wayne briefly and blithely tapdances into the frame, nearly steering (and stealing) the show into the risque: "Yeaaaaaaah!/ Wayne's world, planet rock!/ Panties drop and the top." But this song is ultimately Rudolf's coliseum-scale show; it's his coming-out party, and he'll shred if he wants to.
Welcome to the arrogant strum and drang of "Let It Rock," a hit single that's been well-nigh inescapable for the past six or seven months. If you plan to be attending outdoor sporting events in stadiums and arenas this year--and have somehow missed the "Let It Rock" full-court press--you'd better learn to love it; you're going to hear a great deal of it at deafening volumes. Of course, there are other songs on In the City (Cash Money), Kevin Rudolf's debut, but "Rock" is the only one that will lodge itself perpetually, pebble-like, in the zeitgeist's flip-flop.
Rudolf, a Miami-based guitarist who grew up in New York, began his musical career as a protégé of hip-hop producer Timbaland, who enlisted his fretboard fury for Lil Kim's 2003 single "The Jump Off." Since then, his ax swinging has been increasingly in demand. (Scope liner notes for recordings by everybody from the Black Eyed Peas to Roisin Murphy to Nelly Furtado and you'll find his name; he's even produced David Banner tracks.)
In the City is Rudolf's attempt to leap from background to the fore. He doesn't possess storyteller's skills or an especially distinctive voice--most of the time, he's yelling, murmuring, or communicating through one AutoTune filter setting or another. But his steroidal guitar hooks, cliched sentimentality, and rap-informed bravado fill a need that didn't seem apparent until he stepped forward to claim the territory; call it the Mr. Right Now vapidity-void left by the exodus of bands such as Third Eye Blind, Everclear, and Train, given a muscular, streetwise twist by Rudolf.
John Mayer, Blake Lewis, and Robin Thicke boast a modicum of white-guy soulfulness, but Rudolf's melodics are crazily direct earworms that almost let him get away with coming off like a Herb while feeling perfectly suited for freewheeling collegiate road trips and lost Senior Weekends. Somewhere, someone young and reckless is forging lasting memories right now with this album blaring in the background--memories that will last longer than the twin senses of immortality and imperviousness In the City engenders.
There's something for just about everyone in City's sleek, populist caravan of cheese. "Coffee and Donuts" goes in for some louche, new wave foppery: glassy synths curve and sizzle and syncopated drums snap while Rudolf's loopy asides hump the rhythm. Self-identified thugs can glom onto the adrenalized stomp and furious fingerings of "N.Y.C.," where Rudolf doles out chestnuts such as "Certified son-of-a-gun learns life lesson 101/ Don't fly too high on your own supply/ Get burned by the sun" and "In the city of dreams, you get caught up in the schemes/ And fall apart in the seams, tonight." For some reason, Nas drops by for one of those dazzling displays of virtuosity that make you wonder why, exactly, he doesn't garner greater visibility.
"Scarred" is overprocessed and varnished nearly beyond the point of no return, featuring dissolving, pitch-skipping synthesizer matrices--and reps for all the wide-eyed, pretty young things with cutting habits and too much naivete to survive the city's harsh lights. This track is almost a non-sequitur amid City's stampeding bluster, where he decelerates to ballad-speed to counsel and engage; live, it's likely the sort of momentum-shift that screams out for mass lighter waving and idol-to-idolizing hand squeezes with those committed Rudolf fanatics fevered enough to force their way up front.
Then it's right back to the larger-than-life riff ridges and bombastic jackassery. "No Way Out" teases an extended, iffy Wizard of Oz/Alice in Wonderland metaphor out of Jason-Mraz-tries-hair-metal-blues heroics. The seething pop-froth surge of "Welcome to the World" comes equipped with a drowsy, freeze-dried Rick Ross cameo and a bit of advice that Rudolf would do well to take to heart before taking down his gun-for-hire sign: "Check out the forecast, predictions won't stop/ You'll get your 15, and then they'll take the spot."
The Kevin Rudolf show scheduled for May 8 at Sonar has been canceled. For more information visit sonarbaltimore.com.
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Baltimore, MD 21201