Monday, May 4, 2009

Album Review: Asleep In The Bread Aisle

If you have ever been at a bar or party and a bunch of preppy white guys started free-styling (this has become exponentially more prevalent after the widespread popularity of “8 Mile”) and wondered what would happen the next morning if one of these shaggy haired, Wedding-Crasher-Look-A-Likes woke up, shook off the hangover and tried to get a record deal, you now have an answer: Asher Roth.  

Much like another white MC (no, not that one), Roth has had the “Internet Going Nuts” for the last 12 months.  His DJ Drama/Don Cannon Mixtape “The Greenhouse Effect” garnered instant respect and credibility, his collaborations with young mc’s like Charles Hamilton, legends like Slick Rick and street cats like Beanie Sigel quickly separated him from the typical youtube sensations, his appearance (more J. Crew than Juice Crew) made him something of a curiosity in these fashion/swagger conscious times, his Rick Flair reference filled freestyle over Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys” immediately put fans on notice that he was not a gimmick and his resemblance to Eminem (both physical and vocal) have made him a topic of discussion on as many message boards as Rick Ross’ past, Joe Budden’s girlfriend and Cam’ron sightings.  

Asher Roth is the first of the current crop of new artists (Charles Hamilton, Kid Cudi, Drake, Nipsey Hustle, Corey Gunz, etc.) to produce a full-length major label release and while the album does not dazzle from start to finish, it is solid enough to calm older heads down about where the game is going.  At only 10 tracks the album is short, but this self-editing actually enhances the project because there is very little filler and most of the songs actually present coherent concepts as opposed to they typical “Let’s get a hot producer and rap about being in a club” songs that are common on most LP’s.  The lead single (and arguably strongest cut) “I Love College” is a pretty good example of everything on “Asleep In The Bread Aisle”: Asher raps straightforward but clever lyrics about partying, girls and drinking over rock-inspired beats while fully accepting his class clown status. In the age of MC’s incessantly discussing drug sales, $500,000 cars and strippers this type of happy-go-lucky soundtrack for the suburbs is a welcome distraction from the typical commercial urban radio playlist, but the fact that college has become such a homogenized experience that just about anybody that has ever visited a college campus can relate to every line of this song is somewhat lamentable.

Musically the album draws heavily on Roth’s  suburban roots and samples bands like Weezer (“I Love College”) to produce a stoner/rocker vibe on most of the tracks.  The majority of the beats are provided by newcomer Oren Yoel, who should see his stock in the industry rise dramatically after this album.  The beats are accessible enough to entice non-Hip-Hop heads to listen and garner play on Top 40 radio, but have enough Boom Bap to keep them out of the genre limbo of artists like Beck or The Bloodhound.  

Lyrically, Asher Roth holds his own, but does not have the same “rewind factor” of early Eminem.  While the comparisons to Marshall Mathers are somewhat warranted (race, voice, flow, inflections), the subject matter on “Asleep In The Bread Aisle” (college, smoking pot, forgetting your iPod, world poverty and  the importance of a father figure) in some ways establish Roth as the Anti-Slim Shady.  Put simply, Asher Roth is the rich white kid with friends, nice clothes and the keys to his parent’s car that Eminem railed against on his early work.  However, the fact that Eminem’s influence extended beyond trailer parks and grimy open mics to upper class suburbs and college campuses is a testament to the incredible impact he had on the entire generation of kids that grew up on Slim Shady.  

Also, while older rap fans may bristle at an affluent white dude rapping it should be acknowledged that Asher Roth is completely representative of the current Hip-Hop demographic.  In the 80’s and 90’s Hip-Hop was a predominantly Black cultural movement that was only accepted by groups on the fringes of White America.  Accordingly, the White artists that gained notoriety during this period where representative of these fringe movements: skateboarders/punk rockers (The Beastie Boys),  rabble rousing hooligans (House of Pain), intellectuals interested in new and emerging cultures (3rd Bass) and angry, latch-key kids that had more in common with rappers than any other kind of entertainer (Eminem).  In 2009, the “typical” consumer of Hip-Hop music has never been “on the block,” does not buy $5 mixtapes, but downloads them on computers worth thousands of dollars, drinks 40’s as a joke and thinks nothing of dancing to current hits by Rick Ross or Flo Rida at fraternity parties.  Hip Hop music (and the bastardized version of the culture presented by most media outlets and record labels) has become so pervasive that most people under 25 see no difference between Kanye West and Miley Cyrus-they are both cool artists that make fun party songs for your iPod. While it is hard to pinpoint exactly when in the early 2000’s this demographic change happened (Eminem? Jay-Z? Nelly? Puffy? Who really knows?) it is clear that by 2003 the overwhelming majority of the ten million people that bought 50 Cent’s “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’” bought them in suburban shopping malls and not corner bodegas.  Asher Roth represents this new breed of Hip-Hop fan more so than any other rapper.  On the album closer “Fallin’” he tells the story of his earliest Hip-Hop memories and they include buying Jay-Z’s “Hark Knock Life Vol. 2” (1998), by this point Hip-Hop was already the biggest selling music on the Billboard charts, rappers where winning Grammy’s and driving Bentley’s and artists like Puffy, Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes and Lil’ Kim where A-List celebrities. Asher Roth (and everybody his age) is completely unaware of the outsider status of the music and culture simply because they came of age in an era where Hip-Hop was widely accepted as part of mainstream youth culture.  To younger Hip-Hop heads a white college kid rapping is as natural as changing their status on Facebook, texting their friends and twittering about “My Super Sweet 16.” 

While the comparisons to Eminem are inevitable (and addressed quite nicely in “As I ‘Em”) the current MC that Roth most resembles is Travis Mc Coy from Gym Class Heroes.  Musically the album is a mash-up of several genres and made for today’s generation of listeners raised on the iPod shuffle, much like GCH, but Asher’s lyrics are also similar to the band’s frontman in the way that he starts verses with sick ideas and great flows, but often fails to deliver on the promise shown when he starts spitting, in this respect they are both somewhat like sprinters that come out of the blocks strong but pull up before reaching the finish line.  Hopefully, Roth can address this on future releases and put the “nail in the coffin” to truly deserve comparisons to Marshall Mathers.  

While “Asleep In The Break Aisle” may fail to be the cultural phenomenon of other debut albums by great white hypes like “License To Ill” or “The Slim Shady LP” it is a solid disk of party tracks (“I Love College,” “Be By Myself” and “She Don’t Want a Man”), humorous stories (“Blunt cruisin’” and “Bad Day”) and serious subject matter (“Sour Patch Kids,” “His Dream” and “Fallin’”) to warrant at least a listen from real Hip-Hop fans and while the ultimate impact this album will have on the genre remains to be seen, it definitely provides a welcome respite from the version of Hip-Hop constantly presented by radio and video outlets.  

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