Another New Rap Album That Isn't Curtis or Graduation
Or American Gangster, for that matter
"Bac Road Mississippi," the first song on the new Young Bleed album Once Upon a Time in Amedica, starts out with the sound of a lazy bottleneck guitar, and it keeps going for a while, along with soft train-track sound-effects and sad, slow trumpets. The drums don't kick in until about a minute into the song, and even then they just settle into a slow shuffle while the guitar mutters melancholy little blues phrases around it. This is pretty much the perfect way for a Young Bleed song to begin. The Baton Rouge veteran is maybe the least excitable rapper I've ever heard. He barely ever puts even the slightest emphasis on any of his words, instead letting his drawl drip out in a slow, assured monotone. Bleed stays right in the pocket of his beats, but he never quite sounds like he's rapping. It's like he's just talking in sentences that just happen to rhyme. And so an organic, bluesy track like "Bac Road Mississippi" works beautifully with his unchanging delivery, connecting it with older forms of black American music. On that song, he starts the second verse with this line: "I take the stage like a young Robert Johnson / And I light up some blaze and start yankin' on my johnson." That's maybe not exactly how the young Robert Johnson would usually take the stage, but how many other rappers would bother to name-check an ancient blues pioneer like that? Bleed also introduces the song's guest, the Dallas rapper Money Waters, calling him "my fish and grit-cookin'-ass partner." And in his verse, Money Waters mentions "sippin' cognac, bumpin' Bobby Womack." Once Upon a Time in Amedica is full of moments like this, offhand and unpretentious nods to a long musical continuum, and that's only one of the ways in which it feels like an album out of time. Ten songs later, Bleed says, "I'm out the window with that endo / Playing that Super Nintendo," and I love the idea that this guy hasn't bothered to update his video-game system in the last fifteen years. These days, most rap veterans sound uncomfortable and clueless when they try to keep up with newer trends in the music. Bleed sounds like he just doesn't care.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an entry about the Coughee Brothaz' Waitin' Our Turn, a low-key, low-budget indie-rap album that came out around the same time as the twin Kanye West and 50 Cent opuses. Once Upon a Time is like that, too, and it actually came out on the same day as those two albums. You wouldn't know it to listen to the album. Bleed has been kicking around regional-rap circles for well over a decade, and Once Upon a Time is his sixth album. Bleed had one quick brush with national stardom; in 1998, he released his first solo album, My Balls & My Word, on the then-unstoppable No Limit label, scoring a gold plaque and a minor hit single in the process. Since then, he's been steadily churning out records, first for Priority and then for C-Bo's indie label West Coast Mafia. Once Upon a Time is the first of those albums that I've heard; I bought it from iTunes earlier in the week, pretty much on a whim. I'm glad I did. It's not a great album, but it is the sort of rap album we don't hear much anymore: one that sustains a mood and sinks pleasantly into the background. The production is laid-back but relatively indistinct Southern-rap slow-drive music with lots of rumbling bass and spaced-out 808s, and it never rushes itself or stretches to reach some new demographic. Even the two attempted club-tracks are slow and insistent; they draw on frenzied New Orleans bounce beat-structures, but they push all the elements so low in the mix that they never overwhelm Bleed himself. And Bleed would be pretty easy to overwhelm. He always sounds unruffled and imperturbable, like he's half-asleep and just rapping to kill time during commercial-breaks while he's watching TV. When a more animated guest shows up, like when David Banner breathes fire all over "Music 'N' Money," the contrast is jarring. On "People!," there's a moment where Bleed says, "On fire like Fire Marshall Bill, let me show you something," and it took me a minute to remember that the second part of the line was the old Jim Carrey character's catchphrase, since Bleed doesn't bother to turn his voice into the deranged cackle that everyone uses when they do Fire Marshall Bill impressions. He just delivers the line in his usual flat voice. I thought he really did want to show me something.
Once Upon a Time is a thoroughly unambitious record. Bleed never stretches outside his comfort zone, and he rarely addresses any subject-matter beyond the usual smoking-weed and being-gangsta stuff. When he does go a little deeper, though, it feels that much more powerful. "N' Da' Street," for instance, has one moment where you can start to see the desperation behind his droopy poker-face: "Here in New Orleans, we packed like sardines / All around the world like Daniel Pearl; I know what war means." But the overwhelming impression I get from the album is one of ease and comfort; Bleed sounds like he'd be perfectly happy making albums just like this one for the next decade or so. His moment in the pop spotlight may be long behind him, but Bleed knows that he's got a small and devoted audience who can keep him fed for years if he keeps making slight and satisfying records like this one. Writing about rap, it's really easy to sink into the Monday-morning quarterbacking trap of keeping half and eye stuck on record sales and talking as much about marketing plans as music. And so I'm really glad that albums like Waitin' Our Turn and Once Upon a Time in Amedica are still being made. Nobody's getting rich off of albums like this one, and so maybe the people making the records are just doing it because they care about making music.