The Cool Kids
When Fish Ride Bicycles
(Green Label Sound; 2011)
By Brian Riewer | 15 September 2011
In his review for Curren$y’s Pilot Talk (2010), staffer Chris Molnar made the assertion that a Fly Spitta soliloquy would fare better than the guest-heavy double-album we were given, and though I’d argue that it didn’t take away from final product as much as he suggests, he still has a point: it’s become far too hard to find rappers content with flying solo these days, despite many of them possessing the dexterity and resourcefulness to do so. I don’t blame them for looking to bring their friends along with every potential collaborator merely one “@” away, but as more artists involve themselves in the formation of a work, the purpose behind the piece becomes necessarily more diluted and harder to understand.
Midwestern rap duo the Cool Kids’ The Bake Sale (2008) stands as a perfect example of this dedication to direction, as the album hardly touched anyone’s hands outside of the duo of Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish before it hit record stores. What resulted was a chronicle of two thoroughly unique teenagers operating within their own set of rules completely alien to the social order that functioned around them. It played fast and loose with the idea of what money could buy them and consequently what it could do for their competitors, placing “cool” as their most valuable asset, as well as the commodity their competition most lacked and was least privy to accumulating. Constant reminders of their empty bank accounts and lack of any significant disposable income abounded, included as if it built their cred. They rode bikes, didn’t drive; ate TV dinners; stumbled around “like a wino with the brown bag,” without a steady job; and then when Chuck innocently admitted he didn’t have a penthouse, it was like the duo was thumbing their noses at the moneyed, Mikey quickly responding, “We’ll party on the rooftop.”
The metaphor extended to their instrumentals: straight-forward beat work and fuzzy bass lines were in full effect, sent out in dedication to their fellow destitute adolescents, saluting their scallywags and offering two dollars for entry into their parties when most places would tell you to take your broke ass home. Swagger-jacking played far more into their concerns than money ever did; their steez wasn’t something simply purchased, leaving their financially able rivals stymied, even fearful they’d be called out by the cackling, cooler-than-thou pair: “I’m shark bait, any slight move you might bite me.”
While this focused aesthetic helped the Cool Kids succeed in what turned out to be an impressively cohesive freshman statement, its follow-up, and their full-length debut, When Fish Ride Bicycles makes maturity and notoriety sound boring; Mikey and Chuck seem lost throughout the album. With no particular adherence to proclamations of coolness nor any alternate subtext to replace their once overwhelming economy of swag, it’s often difficult to discern exactly what inspired any of the tracks. Topics run through the typical bitches/cars/weed gamut; “Sour Apples” is about a general survey of women they’ve met in this line of work, concluding that “some [are] sour apples, some [are] sweet as dessert” (not a doomed subject necessarily, but the lack of deviation and specificity from “there are outwardly nice people out there and also people who are not so nice” is so paint-by-numbers it’s excruciating). And then there’s “Bundle Up”: Mikey mentions he had a beeper in third grade, Chuck blabs about shopping at Whole Foods when he’s stoned, both talk about how they’re hot and it’s cold as fuck in the winter in Chicago. Yawn.
Probably most damning, though, is the profusion of guest spots throughout When Fish Ride Bicycles. Theirs is a smattering of only vaguely like-minded and similarly toned contributors who appear chosen more for name recognition than how any would functionally work alongside the pair and within the fabric of the album. As a result, Mikey and Chuck often sacrifice their own comfort and performance to make their guests feel welcome. Ghostface Killah absolutely annihilates his spot on “Penny Hardaway,” tearing through the forty or so seconds allotted him like a man on a mission; whether the RZA-lite beat they pitched for the track was done as a favor is unclear, but the Kids certainly didn’t do any favors for themselves, Mikey half-asleep on his verse and Chuck at his best disinterested on a beat the two sedated mumblers couldn’t have possibly carried. “Gas Station” features Bun B nailing it pretty hard, but he goes first on a beat which slowly assembles itself, pushing Chuck back all the way to nearly two minutes into the song, making the duo seem like confused hypemen on their own track. And those are only the collaborations that work: “Swimsuits” is an absolute fucking mess, the beat cheap and cartoonish in an effort to shoehorn Mayer Hawthorne into a partnership that should have really been scrapped at the drawing board, while “Sour Apples” goes on for forty long seconds to let Travis Barker dick around on a drum set. It sounds like a Tap Out shirt looks.
Granted, Mikey and Chuck have settled into sparser flows and softer, 420-friendly tones as they’ve been slowly keeping their names fresh since their debut EP, but it’s a further demonstration of their lack of control on Bicycles that Asher Roth is the only guest to complement their sound as it currently stands. While there’s nothing wrong with the production displayed on When Fish Ride Bicycles, Inglish laid down the blueprint for supporting this duo so well that the oft busier and more varied work on this outing feels like too much to digest and too much for them to wade through. A whoopee cushion bass thud and 4th snare snap on “Mikey Rocks” allowed Mikey to go buck on that track; throw the sink at them like on “Swimsuits” and they get lost in the mess. They’re admittedly flat and reach a murmur at their most animated, but put them in the right context and the subtly colorful duo shines—Bake Sale is proof of that. But when the track that probably goes over the best on When Fish Ride Bicycles is the zoned-out posse cut “Roll Call,” where their collaborators actually work, and that collaborator is the aforementioned college-loving Roth, it’s because they’re adhering to the Pilot Talk formula for guest spotting: invite a couple of fellow stoners onto your turf, chill, and talk about stupid shit. Rinse and repeat. Unfortunately, the Kids have finally realized that cool just doesn’t pay the bills.