There's Only One
(A-Side Worldwide; 2008)
By Mark Abraham | 27 August 2008
“There’s Only One” opens with a brilliant union of ’70s prog keyboard washes and stark drum sequences; the main beat internalizes both and regurgitates them as this weird krautrock-inspired hip hop track that sounds like not much else I can think of offhand. Brilliant. But.
The album is just as good afterwards, but it doesn’t really live up to the innovation this track suggests until near the end. So, while I do want to talk about why I like There’s Only One, first I should point out that this review won’t really disagree with Chet’s point about the challenge that the Detroit hip hop scene is facing as it simultaneously explodes and plateaus—that Black Milk’s Dilla-inspired production is quickly becoming an overwhelming blueprint/gauze that tends to mask the individuality of artists involved in this Detroit Renaissance. But it’s also true, I think, and I think Chet basically thinks, that even if these growing pains haven’t yet made for landmark albums (outside of Shapeshifters, possibly) this scene offers some viable avenues out of the conundrum hip hop artists and fans face in 2008.
Well, okay: let’s step back a minute. Chet’s talking about a kind of hybridity between commercial and underground poses that Detroit emcees have embraced as a status quo, and Ann Arbor’s Buff1 is rocking that too, but that’s not really the “viable” part I’m talking about. It is different, I ‘spose, but its very existence hints at the unfortunate staying power of the now-ancient conscious/commercial myth. Sure, the terms of the debate have changed: the outdated “conscious” has given way to the more amorphous “underground” as it has become increasingly pathetic to hear conscious partisans prop Common and Black Thought up as the only real conduits of authentic hip hop halcyon whatevers when it is readily apparent that said halcyon whatevers are Common and Black Thought themselves, 15 years ago. The either/or is still essentially the same, and, I mean, why? Why does hip hop have to be one way or the other, or now this other other, this new hybridity which tries to split the difference? Why is hip hop always staring at its own past, and then punishing (or, more likely, ignoring) those who push forward?
And so certain conscious/underground fans scowl at gangsta rap/commercial rap/coke rap like the very idea is a scat flick staged in Joseph Saddler’s mouth. But my listening to Clipse doesn’t negate my enjoyment of Buhloone Mindstate or The Book of Human Language or Clear Blue Skies or The Cold Vein, because Hell Hath No Fury succeeds on the same terms as those albums, whatever it’s about, because all of these albums are something radically different from what a hip hop album of any stripe normally is. Clipse learned from the lesson of pre-debate hip hop better than any so-called conscious artist; they made an artistic statement that actually advanced the genre with a new sound. If this weren’t hip hop, but techno or indie or jazz or Panda Bear, like 50 subpar but aesthetically similar albums would have been released by now. And I mention all of this because it’s the other side of what fascinates me about the Dilla thing. Veteran producer revolutionizes hip hop by bridging commercial and underground styles into something new; legions of artist/fans rightly venerate his name, but do so by walking in place, MPCs clutched under arms. Black Milk may make phenomenal beats, and once again he’s spilling out gorgeous stuff on There’s Only One, but it’s only in a couple of cases where it sounds like we haven’t heard it before. Detroit might be becoming the new hot scene, but Detroit sounds like Detroit sounds.
There’s Only One, a sort-of hybrid child of that scene, may seem like it tries to appeal to all of these fans. People who enjoy rhyme-schemed lists of influences will love “Classic Rap”; they’ll hate the Rick Rubin guitar squall production behind it, and hearing UGK and Eric B. mentioned in the same breath. People who love rappers who shit on the radio will love commercial music-slamming “Beat the Speakers Up”; the rest of us will think, “radio? What’s that?” Politically-minded listeners will be fascinated by “Love the Love” which directly attacks the idea that artists should simply do their thing for the love of it; conscious fans will recoil from the suggestion that money is a desirable thing. And I could go more into depth with the contradictions fans of various allegiances will perceive, but a) I don’t actually think these are contradictions at all, and b) I’m kind of fascinated by the way Buff1 sort of ignores the paradox in the first place. Like, you know how Lupe Fiasco goes out of his way to let us know he’s a skateborder with commercial appeal? Buff1 doesn’t stand outside of the hybridity, yet, but instead of trying to present it as a novel persona, he just sort of raps about whatever the hell he wants to. And he’s a sharp emcee, too, like most of his scene peers; I’d say he’s more charismatic than most of them.
That’s part of the “what’s viable” about Buff1 that I mentioned earlier; the other part is that even if the limited way he embraces the Detroit scene’s hybridity dilutes the impact of There’s Only One, it does foster a kind of throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to composition that can result in some incredibly invigorating tracks, because things can go both ways. Besides “There’s Only One,” “Numbers Can’t Measure” may be my favorite hip hop beat this year, with its lumbering drum riff and sliced vocal/synth samples that give the whole thing an off-kilter feel. Buff1 rises to the challenge, giving his flow a lilt that matches the snare/high hat slur that emphasizes the 2s and 4s. “Goodness Music” rolls a little Kanye diva-synth indulgence together with some wonderfully staggered piano licks; the sheer space the sparseness of the production creates sets the vocals square in the midst of an atmospheric wash that kicks the album off with a kind of grandiosity that is predictable, yes, but still kind of awesome. “Once” runs on another stuttering, sliced sample; Buff1 is a little subsumed here, admittedly, but the beat is so good it kind of doesn’t matter.
And in trying to have it both ways, it kind of is both ways. You see where this is going. There’s Only One is a solid album, but with the exception of the brilliant “Numbers Can’t Measure” and “There’s Only One,” there’s nothing here that says anything specific or lasting about what Buff1’s intent is as an artist. As an individual album this isn’t an issue; There’s Only One is really good. But as the Detroit discography becomes more and more crowded, fans will start looking to see who stands out from the crowd. Commercial or underground or however these artists present themselves, I really want to see one of these artists just embrace a whole new aesthetic. The talent is overwhelmingly present, after all. Let’s move past “really good” to “holy shit.”