Remember when hip-hop was fun? My adolescence was filled with the entertaining, harmless anthems of MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and Tone Loc. “Hip Hop Hooray,” “Jump Around,” and the “Humpty Dance” were the soundtrack to my middle school dances. Kids wore their overalls backwards to emulate Kriss Kross and oversized Starter jackets like ABC (Another Bad Creation, yo!). Queen Latifah reigned supreme, Run DMC were the “Kings of Rock,” and Will Smith was The Prince of Bel Air. Sure, acts like NWA and Public Enemy were anything but fun, but at that time, their hard-cutting verbal assaults were the minority to the more common, party approach to rap music.
Things changed with the dawning of gangsta rap. I’m not suggesting that Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg didn’t know how to have a good time, smoking their indo while sippin’ on gin and juice, but their songs took the genre into more violent, brooding territory. No longer was it cool to rap about how you can “Bust a Move” or how you wish you were a little bit taller, wish you were a baller, wish you had a girl, if you did, you would call her. Many artists tried to toughen up their image (gangsta MC Hammer was my favorite), but their efforts were transparent to fans that wanted stories of the streets from those who lived it.
Since that mid-90s mood shift, hip-hop has remained grounded in the more menacing approach, rappers boasting their worth in diamonds, clothes, and cars, MCs regaling their days as drug dealers and gang members. That’s what makes Action Bronson’s major label debut Mr. Wonderful so refreshing – it’s a throwback to the days when rappers were more interested in promoting a good time than themselves.
Bronson has built up an underground following over the past several years with a handful of mix-tapes, two self-released albums, and two EPs. As hilarious and fun as these early releases could be at times, they all had moments of weakness, a lack of focus that often beleaguers mix-tapes. Most of the prior work by Bronson involved him freestylin’ over Party Supplie’s catchy beats and loops. It worked, but would eventually grow old due to the lack of direction and purpose.
Based off of the intoxicating power on Mr. Wonderful, the biggest thing missing from those early efforts is an age-old staple in music – the tried and true chorus. Most of the tracks on Mr. Wonderful contain a centerpiece hook holding together Bronson’s comical portrayal of what it’s like to be a “Big bearded Buddha bangin’ bitches in Bermuda.” Instead of relying on some big name vocalist to come in and pump up his tracks, Bronson sings the majority of the melodies. He’s far from Frank Ocean, but there’s also something endearing about his nasally, slightly off-key vocals. The best example of this is “Baby Blue” featuring Chance the Rapper, a song that has Bronson singing about his girl who “gotta act like a bitch,” conjuring up memories of Biz Markie humorously howling “You say he’s just a friend!”
Along with “Baby Blue,” songs like “Actin’ Crazy” and “Easy Rider” are legitimate radio ready hits, a claim that couldn’t be made about anything by Bronson prior to now. And while I did compare his approach to the likes of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, I wouldn’t dare imply that his lyrical skills are on their lower plane. No, Bronson’s talents as an MC are still on full display, fluidly moving from references to Serge Ibaka to the Iron Chef to The Golden Child with the greatest of ease. When he is bragging (as rappers are wont to do) it’s about silly things like his ability to cook and the insane amount of pot he can vaporize in one sitting.
Mr. Wonderful is the music equivalent of Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke road trip, a fun-filled journey from one outlandish story to the next. Musically, the production on the album follows this same helter-skelter journey, moving from the 70s soul of “The Rising” to the bluesy jam band feel of “City Boy Blues” to the 80s rock riffs of “Only in America.” The album doesn’t have an over-reaching sound, but in a way, this constant sound shift is necessary to keep the party hopping.
“Only in America” features a sample from Germany’s Artishock:
For those who are looking for more substance, you might be looking in the wrong place for a statement on world affairs. “Thug Love Story of 2007” provides a moment of sentimentality and “Light in the Addict” is a revealing look at the struggles of addiction. However, these are just brief pit stops on the rowdy party bus adventure. While hip-hop acts like Run the Jewels, Vince Staples, and Kendrick Lamar receive accolades for their lyrical analysis of injustice and poverty, Action Bronson just wants to have a good time, and with Mr. Wonderful you’re welcome to join in on the best joy ride since Coolio took us on a “Fantastic Voyage.”