Just over a year after his last full-length album, Perfect Hair, Los Angeles rapper-producer Busdriver has added another off-the-wall opus of art rap to his long-running discography with Thumbs, released Nov. 6. Busdriver has become ubiquitous in the world of underground hip-hop for his verbose writing style, aggressive delivery, ambitious flows and heavily modulated voice. In recent years, he has also taken on a penchant for singing. This development is unsurprising, as Busdriver’s rapping has always been very tonal – his first hit song, “Imaginary Places,” is rapped over Bach’s Badinerie in B Minor, which he matches perfectly in rhythm and pitch. While Busdriver has always shown himself to be an absurdly talented and versatile vocalist, Thumbs shows a new level of range in his performance. Take the track “Hyperbolic 2,” for example. Busdriver’s voice is crazed, swirling over the dense, discordant beat. This new tension in his voice is especially accentuated in the song’s intro. Conversely, we have the album’s opener “Hottentot Supercluster,” in which Driver embraces his more atmospheric side. His delivery is sober and thoughtful, bordering on spoken word over the quiet instrumental. Within songs, we can often see him bounce back and forth between various vocal stylings – raw and uncouth to whispery, jittery and dense to direct and punishing. The most bizarre example of this, perhaps, is on the track “Two Feet in the Layered Cake,” which juxtaposes some fairly standard verse delivery (for Busdriver) against a most bizarre, dissonant and reverb-laden sung hook of “We can party ’til you’re pregnant!”
To complement his own distinctive performance, Busdriver has brought on an impressive list of featured artists, ranging from underground classics (Del The Funky Homosapien) to rising vocal stars (Anderson .Paak) to fellow art rap pioneers (milo) to people I’ve never heard of before (Zeroh). The track list also sports guest appearances from Kool A.D. (of Das Racist fame), who has been assimilating into the art rap scene over the past year or so, as well as Daveed Diggs (of Clipping) and Hemlock Ernst (the rap alter-ego of Future Islands singer Sam Herring). Driver also brings along a number of other experimental hip-hop producers to provide most of the instrumentals. Jeremiah Jae, Kenny Segal and Mono/Poly reprise their roles from Perfect Hair, alongside some new names (such as Labeatski and JNTHN STN). While there are some golden sonic moments on the tape – the beat for “Worlds To Run,” with its carefully orchestrated guitar samples and soulful trumpet outro, easily stands out as the strongest instrumental – most of the instrumentals are disappointingly forgettable. I found the beats on “Great Spooks of Enormous Strength” and “Species of Property” to be particularly weak. Both are so dense and jumbled with hi-hat cymbal notes and strange sound effects that the tracks become unintelligible. This, unfortunately, is one of the more common pitfalls of Busdriver’s breed of experimental hip-hop. I can’t help but compare Thumbs to the masterpiece that was his last album, though perhaps this makes me too harsh. Perfect Hair was a carefully tuned collection of thoughts and sounds, each one totally memorable and distinct from the next. Thumbs fails to come close to this aesthetic standard.
Busdriver’s true expertise, though, is in his lyricism. He has come to be renowned for his wit, vocabulary and off-kilter approach to themes both momentous and trivial. While Busdriver has always been inspired by and highly vocal about issues of race, Thumbs puts an even greater emphasis on the concept of blackness (or, as he refers to it, “negritude”). Busdriver revels in irony, and much of the lyrical content plays out through bouncing the contradictory notions of “black freedom” and the continued weight of institutional racism. As he puts it in the hook of “Species of Property”: “They telling me that my body’s free, but we’re the species of property.” This irony also manifests itself in the wordplay of “Black Labor,” which juxtaposes the “free” in “freedom” and the “free” in “free labor.” “Surrounded by Millionaires” is perhaps the most thematically interesting track, though. Busdriver and Diggs take a two-pronged approach to the intersection of wealth and blackness. On one hand, the song seems to be a comment on hip-hop culture, in which famous black rappers take great pride in flaunting their “millionaire” status, while most of their fellow black artists are struggling financially. On the other, the song claims that, while black artists like Busdriver and Diggs may not have great financial wealth, their innovations and contributions to the world make them cultural “millionaires.” Most of Busdriver’s bars, though, are so strange, clever and cryptic that I can’t begin to interpret them. Perhaps they have no meaning at all. Perhaps they are best enjoyed when trying to unravel their meaning yourself, or perhaps they should be appreciated simply for their poetry and wit.
Ultimately, Thumbs fails to meet the expectations set for me by the superb quality of Perfect Hair. While the album/mixtape features some excellent tracks, relevant themes and Busdriver’s own raw talent as an emcee, as a whole, Thumbs feels like a jumble. It seems like very little thought was put into unifying the track list, and Thumbs ends up coming across as a mixed bag. Perhaps this is why it was publicized as a mixtape rather than an LP. This is unfortunate, as some of the tracks (particularly the lead singles “MUCH” and “Worlds to Run”) are so stellar that I wish they had been put into a more coherent package. Thumbs has great moments, as well as a fascinating approach toward pressing issues of race and justice, but fails to stand on its own in the shadow of its predecessors.