Life Is Expensive
(Glow in the Dark; 2008)
By Chet Betz | 23 June 2008
So I think L.A. based rap outfit Time Machine just made a sunny record of artistic disenfranchisement, a shift in their style copping to their theme. The theme being that underground rap is not really a lifestyle because a rap lifestyle of any sort requires more money—you know, for bling and block parties and lots of Rocawear. Most underground rappers are reduced to hip-hop as hobby/hook-up which contradicts the statement of dedication that has ingrained itself in their genre’s DNA: “Hip-hop equals culture, equals life.” Underground rappers then face a quandary: become conscious or become frivolous. Become conscious and run the very likely risk that your music becomes reactionary, sometimes just because of the built-in contrast to the overriding materialism of the mainstream rap mold. Become frivolous and suddenly you’re Paul Barman.
Of course, this is overly reductive, too much one of those either/or situations that Mark Abraham was talking about in his Wolf Parade piece. There are some hot artists right now that are prying at the pulpy center between the false dichotomy—take, for instance, Wale or the Cool Kids. But Wale is more mixtape rapper than underground, and as soon as he does the inevitable Kanye guest spot he’ll be launched into the same befuddling realm of everything-to-everyone that Lupe’s currently trying to conquer. The Cool Kids stake their dirty state through pure surface appeal, creating their own low-budget world of cool in which they rock big hats over a consolidation of ’88 DIY attitude with ’08 “A Milli” minimalism that makes their music whole at the same time it expunges the subtext and the inner conflicts that characterize the great rap records of your Nasirs, your Hovs, your GZAs. The Cool Kids make it rain with pocket change instead of dead presidents and then obsess over sampling the sound of the coins hitting the pavement. In short, The Bake Sale EP’s both awesome and uninteresting. Unless you’re way into pagers, black mags, and Fruity Pebbles—then it’s just awesome.
But we see how the definition of these artists and their almost too predictable futures means there’s some truth to the idea that underground rap is basically a thin red line. The new Invincible is one of the only recent rap albums that miraculously manages to be intensely political while effortlessly hot in a way that’s unique, so difficult is the balancing act for the underground rapper who wants to avoid getting stapled into easy summaries—personalities folded into the big niche bins of Rhymesayers or Stones Throw or Def Jux—or who’d rather not lie about rolling in the Benz when they’re still just trying to save for the Chrysler 300. Time Machine’s new album tries to remain honest about how they’re coping with the reality that they’re releasing this thing on a label they started themselves; its title states that Life Is Expensive while its music battles sobriety with goofy groove jams. Whereas the pretty darn great Slow Your Roll (2004) was about using a nostalgic aesthetic for the purpose of cheeky but still emotional reverie, Time Machine’s follow-up seems more inclined to ratchet the BPM and shout some dance instructions for the purpose of partying like it’s 1989. Points for self-awareness: on one hook Greg Nice asks us to “do the unfortunate twist.”
And, okay, I guess I can handle that, even if it reminds me of Deee-Lite and how they spelled their name the way they did. Also, I don’t think anyone else right now is executing this kind of stuff, self-limiting as it is, on the level that Time Machine do on tracks like “(If You Know What) I Mean,” “The Groove That Just Won’t Stop,” and “Something We’re Becoming.” This is mostly because Time Machine’s production guru Mekalek is good at what he does: his immaculately blended sample tapestries are warm and dense, crate-digger symphonies, and his drums snap, crackle, and pop as pleasingly as a bowl of Rice Krispies while staying locked in to a steady fever. It’s sort of like finally hearing what up-tempo Gnarls Barkley tracks want to be, and Time Machine’s two emcees barely have to do anything besides letting us know that they’re having a good time. By off-handedly succeeding at something to which so many West Coast crews dedicate their failure-perpetuating careers, these tracks also serve to expose a group like Jurassic 5 for their utter inability to pull off a simple throwback party jam. And the world can never have too much shitting on J5.
There’s still the misfortune of “The Unfortunate Twist,” however, and a track like “We’re Making a Video” where the meaning doesn’t extend past the title, its storytelling ending up a making-of commentary without the thing actually made (great samples, though). I think the real disappointment of Life Is Expensive sets in when more reflective tracks like the opener and closer remind us of the superior tack of Slow Your Roll. “In the City of Everything” paints L.A. as a city whose assimilative yet hierarchical expansiveness leaves people feeling lost. Time Machine think they’ve got it pretty much figured out, but their record’s thesis and its stylistic split shows that their scene’s backdrop is cluttering up the action. “Survival Kit” is really the track that puts an incredible stamp on a record that could have resonated if the body had just followed the closing statement; the rapping talks about artist survival and extols smelling the roses while flowing over an undulation of arpeggios and washes, interjecting between the phrasings of a shockingly gorgeous vocal sample, all that bereft of percussion: “A way to live and not just exist / A way to glow in the dark and leave my mark / I found a way not to say there’s another way, but hey / I found a way not to say it’s the only way, but hey, but hey, but hey!” Then the drums crash in, hip-hop resoundingly affirmed.
I’d be deeply in love with a record that lived up to how that final song parses the slash between the “either” and “or” of the underground rapper’s pickle, drawing out equal signs and division symbols and so much more with the power of its last ambiguous couplet and its musical structure. Instead I have an enjoyable record containing brilliant moments that still mostly leaves me with trifling questions, like what will happen to Danger Mouse if Cee-Lo hears Mekalek’s stuff and why do emcees Jaysonic and Comel call themselves Jet Set Jay and Biscuit (yes, Biscuit) in the record’s liner notes. And the only answer that Time Machine offers is their record’s title. Shit’s just a little disheartening, even while Time Machine mostly succeed at what they’re trying to do. But they’re never gonna blow up in every which direction like Wale, and they’re already in too many directions to become the magnifying glass’s burning prick that is the Cool Kid’s focus, so I wish they’d taken a page from Invincible and made a record fully committed to what makes their art excellent and theirs in the first place. See, I’m hoping they ignore the go-go innervation of “Something We’re Becoming” for the glow-glow meditation of “Survival Kit.” Life Is Expensive but Life Is Beautiful. Next record Time Machine need to stay on their Roberto Benigni tip.