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Call MC Paul Barman’s new album, Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud, the Finnegans Wake of hip-hop. It’s dense. And complicated. And you can’t simply pop it in and hope to understand it after a few listens. CliffsNotes probably should be included.
A little background: Barman is the New York City rapper who “won the lottery”—in the opinion of his many haters—when Prince Paul agreed to produce his 2000 debut EP, It’s Very Stimulating. The music was buoyant, shiny, and silly, and Barman’s rhymes concerned subjects both intellectual (“I make paintings based on grids just like Chuck Close/I’m old school like Aztecs but new in other aspects”) and juvenile (“I hope my sperm’ll/Get under your thermal/Underwear, because you’re cuter than Nermal.”)
His pace was often behind or ahead of the beat and, most startlingly, his raps were completely devoid of hip-hop artifice. To say he sounded white was true but also an oversimplification; he sounded more like a political science TA on mushrooms. Though your hip-hop instincts told you there was something horribly wrong, your heart couldn’t help but swoon. Here was an MC who was truly doing him, who was bringing silliness and avant-garde subject matter to a discipline that could use some of both.
Barman’s 2002 full-length Paullelujah! continued in the vein of his EP, with some of the most tongue-twisting pussy worship ever put to wax. “Cock Mobster” runs down the perverted things he’d like to do to various celebrities (“Fire blanks into Tyra Banks” and “Feel the pubis of Mila Kunis” were on the tamer end) and contains his most oft-quoted line, “My dandy voice makes the most anti-choice grannies’ panties moist.”
Barman then fell relatively silent until last year’s Full Buck Moon Kaboom mixtape, which included a pair of “audiobiographies” on Weird Al and RZA, and a recording from a beatish performance at the Bowery Poetry Club. There, he offered “Yarmulke Bras” for sale, which came in three sizes: the “Bah Titsvah,” the “Boob-bushka,” and “Daughtermelons.”
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It seemed fair to assume the guy was still obsessed with T&A, but Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud is a mature magnum opus, a startlingly sober, not-at-all-horny work focused on education, politics, and word tricks. “Sampling Law” chews on the moral issues surrounding intellectual property, “Get Along Song” (originally recorded for a remake of the animated series The Get Along Gang that never came to fruition) extols the joys of friendship and exploration, and “Power” runs down Robert Greene and Joost Elffers’ book The 48 Laws of Power (“Beggin’ for mercy will just make ’em thirsty,” Barman raps). There are two tracks dedicated to the horrors of circumcision, which allow Barman to get off some good zingers: “You’re going to subject your beautiful brand new baby to fake preventative surgery? Why don’t you just yank out his baby teeth as soon as they come in, just so they don’t get cavities?”
Barman is currently preparing a series of YouTube videos to explain some of the more complicated tracks. “Science,” for example, spells out the album’s title in Morse code; the syllables he raps quickly are the dots, and the syllables he draws out are the dashes. “Back on a White Horse” is a double crostic word puzzle, which means the first letter of each word in a line spells a new word, ultimately spelling out his name. (If you’re not sick of this yet, the album’s cover has another trick: Each letter is portrayed as a “word-ustration”—the “M” is a mirror, the “C” is a crescent moon, etc.)
If Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud sounds like it requires a lot of effort to appreciate, well, it does, but it’s also a lot of fun. For one thing, it features a virtual indie-rap all-star team, including guest appearances from MF Doom, Masta Ace, Del tha Funky Homosapien, and C-Rayz Walz. The music comes from folks like Prince Paul, Doom, Casual T, and ?uestlove. Meanwhile, Austin, Texas–based producer Memory Man (best known for a recent Raekwon mixtape) oversees most of the beats, constructing a landscape fit for a children’s fantasy movie, full of swirling synths, delicate percussion, and upright bass. The simple piano melody of the album’s most devastating song, “It Can All Be Taken Away,” is performed by director Michel Gondry. “‘I buried my daughters and wife with these hands,’” Barman sings in one of the track’s heartbreaking vignettes. “‘After our house was bombed,’ said the war-torn man.”
Barman’s still all over the place with his rhymes, tackling and then quickly discarding a flurry of subjects, rhyming so fast you sometimes have no idea what he’s saying, and punning like it hadn’t gone out of style long ago. But there’s also a gravity absent from his previous work. For starters, marital bliss appears to have freed him from the burden of coming up with words that rhyme with labia. It also helps that his voice seems to have dropped an octave, and he’s in somewhat better command of his rhymes; while they still don’t always sync up with the beat, he usually seems to be performing them that way on purpose. (When I interviewed him, Memory Man said nobody gets upset when the Pharoahe Monch raps at his own pace—since he’s got such a commanding voice—but when Barman does it it’s practically a crime.)
In any case, despite the conceptual window dressing, Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud is still vintage MC Paul Barman, and he doesn’t try to answer the complaints of his adversaries, for whom his intellectual pretentions and inability to sound like Monch probably hit a bit close to home. One commenter on a message board I frequent said he doesn’t want to live in a world where Barman gets to collaborate with Prince Paul, Doom, Del, ?uestlove & Co. But he doesn’t seem to realize that those artists see, in Barman, a unique talent overflowing with whimsy and respect him for his commitment to his unified rap-field theory. Perhaps we should all be so dorky.