Buck 65 - NeverLove
When someone like Doseone describes you as "far-out shit", you've placed yourself at the outer edge of the weird spectrum. Yet contemporary Buck 65 fans will probably know him from Wicked and Weird onwards; a section of his vast career that has seen him fall further and further in to the general hip hop classification. Major label backing (Strange Famous) coupled with a rarely spoken aim of American success has only solidifed this direction, and new fans will now see NeverLove as a standard hip hop release.
It wasn't always the case, and my briefest of historical lessons (excuse me, it's always difficult for reviewers who live and breath an artist to limit themselves) is appropriate here. Buck's back catalogue varies wildly from pure turntable dexterity, weird spoken-word musings on existential crises, the indulgent and consequential qualities that being half man half mythical beast involve, and music designed to enter the Polish national archive. His Language Arts series was indicative of a man completely attuned to his inner artist. Handling every single aspect of recording himself, he allowed his vast intellect to run free creatively. "I had the idea long ago that the fact that I'm a DJ, lyricist and a producer was a unique situation." The result was a maelstrom of ideas, thoughts, snippets of music that most artists would spend years honing, but with Buck's frenetic recording pace each was duly given its airtime and then discarded, moving on to the next piece. It was a fascinating melee of synapses snapping away, and it was part of what made him entirely unique.
Fast forward now to NeverLove, his latest record. Released September 30, it has been preceeded by something I believe ALL artists should do. Actually, maybe not. If they did, us as reviewers may not have a job anymore.. Buck, on his website Buck65.com, released a free stream of the record where each track housed an explanation of who produced it, how he wrote it, and what it is about. Wildly informative, dangerously addictive when you factor in his beautiful speaking voice. It also set off a number of alarm bells inside my head..
So many other artists!! So many fingers in the pot. Buck is not your average emcee. It's great for Jay-Z to gather 10 different producers and have 8 different guest stars on his new record. It's also great when Sage Francis corrals his creative buddies (Buck included) to contribute to his record. But Buck is different. His talent is so stark and unique that throwing it up against the rest of the hip hop world creates a friction that is barely concealable, and it is the first red cross against NeverLove. The record houses only 4 of his own creations, and whilst his previous 2 full length LPs, Situation and 20 Odd Years were both collaborative efforts (Skratch Bastid is noticeably absent from NeverLove despite producing almost all of Situation), this continues the trend towards a wider variety of producers and performers that was explored on 20 Odd Years. Explored is probably where it should've ended, because the extra hands on deck gave that record a sheen of 'over-production'.
This is continued on NeverLove. The first thing you will notice is that this sounds good! It sounds seriously good. Live instrumentation is quantized to within an inch of its life. Drum machines are presented in their organic form without passing them through all manner of tools Buck has used previously (maybe he should've gone back to digging in crates for beats, as disclosed in Driftwood off the brilliant Vertex). Guest vocals are so polished they sound like X-Factor auditions. Tiger Rosa has a lovely voice, as does his other female guests, but their huge sweeping choruses are almost deafening, considering the subject matter.
The subject matter is where things really take a downturn. One of Buck's other projects, Bike for Three! also had a project out this year called So Much Forever. I reviewed it here, and gave it an 8/10. Briefly, I said it was a staggering account of a man eaten from the inside out by heart-break, the devastation was etched in every line he spun, even if he rarely directly addressed what had befallen him. NeverLove takes a different approach. This is bare bones heart break, the entire album is an hommage to a relationship he clearly still dangerously craves. A Case For Us is palmed off as one written 'early in the separation', yet its inclusion is telling. Playful names, "super heroine ninja's", huge upbeat chorus, there is still a thinly disguised plea for redemption. Je'Taime Mon Amour is a retrospective bargain, an admission of guilt designed cynically to self-deprecate in the face of massive loss in the hope that this will cut through the tension and lead to a reversal of fortune. "I'm dying to express myself but I don't speak the language". It feels so grating up against Charlotte Savary's soulful croon. Then there is Roses In The Rain. A conscious effort from our central figure to place himself empathetically in the shoes of the women who so brutally left him, describing her as "painted brave and laughing tragic", and claiming "There's a wolf that lives inside me you have got one too, they recognise one another they can see right through".
Now, this is a break up record. I get that. But if you've followed Buck's facebook page, and his daily anecdotes which literally get me out of bed in the morning (or at least motivate me to open my eyes and turn on my iPad), you'll know that the demise of his marriage was swift and unexpected. She left, with a note reminding him to feed Kevin, his oft-maligned yet loved cat, and her wedding ring. On the intro to Baby Blanket he goes further, explaining that she took just about everything in the house. Yet there still remains this hunger within him to right his wrongs, to chase a ghost, to cling on where no foot or hand hold exists. It's so easy to objectively say that, but when you're in the throws of such a turmoil rational thought often evades us. NeverLove is a swirling mass of irrational explosions, tinted with a personality that is so distinct yet becoming increasingly lost under the weight of emotional breakdown. So Much Forever suffered in this way too, but there are some signs that Buck the artist is staging a sub-conscious comeback. She Fades, a real funky slap of a tune produced by Martin (who is apparently called Son Clef? But I cannot find him anywhere on google..), gets Rich back on his bike, husking his voice up vis-a-vis Rough House Blues, and spitting lyrical gems with aplomb, "snails pace frozen glacier / unsatisfied showmans nature / list making in nomenclature". Danger and Play, a rare all Buck event, sounds possessed, with a violent fog-horn signalling his dive in to a world of high art and weaving metaphors around famous figures and his marriage break up. It's a similar story on opener Gates of Hell, a typically discordant 'beat', so to speak, because it is more like a piece of electronic music, that Buck twists his words around, harmonising with cutting industrial elements and utilising the breathless delivery that signals his most potent work. If only "open the gates of hell" was a more accurate description of what was to come.
Ok, so that is the nuts and bolts of NeverLove. There are other brilliant moments, like the insta-grat of Super Pretty Naughty, which lifts almost everything except the resplendent bottom from Nicki Minaj's Starships, and there are terrible moments, like the inexplicable decision to sing on the final track Superhero In My Heart, as well as the pop-love in Only War. Let's put all of that aside for the moment, all the technical aspects and the links in the narrative, and look at NeverLove. Without the explanations of the individual tracks from the man himself, this record would have fallen well short of his formidable reputation as a poet who has managed to weave his words around hip hop production. If you need any further proof of his talent, check out the project he dropped on the same day as NeverLove, Laundromat Boogie. It's funkified flavour the perfect match for Bucks lyrical wizardry when given a more conducive target. With NeverLove, it's one thing for an artist who's sales are regularly in to 100k mark to chase the radio, it's an entirely other thing for one who is a true champion of the bedroom recording philosophy, who is a success story in weird, to lace his record with so many big pop numbers. And I don't mean Super Pretty Naughty. Too often (8, in fact) the chorus is handed over to the pure, clean pop singer. There's very little hard edge to those songs, and Only War and Heart of Stone are almost sinful in execution. They take precious headspace away from the man with the microphone, and the production is so polished that even quirky sounds and scratching is not saving the worst of them, like it did on 20 Odd Years (BCC, Paper Airplane, Gee Whiz). Too often Buck is stuck in 2nd gear lyrically, his artistic licence apparently stunted by the need to create 'a break up record'. Maybe it is immeasurably affected. Maybe he cannot get it back? So Much Forever was an exercise in mediocrity, but that was beautiful in itself. NeverLove is an explicit embrace of it, and that's a real worry..
I'd like to qualify this review by saying I am a MASSIVE Buck fan. I mean it. I have copped everything from Game Tight to Dirty Work EP to Dirtbike. I think he is one of the lost gems of the hip hop world, of which there are many, but his music is just staggering, and he is a constant source of inspiration to me. Writing these words cuts like a knife.