You can’t think of Bizarre Ride without thinking of “Ya Mama.” It’s as hilarious as it is clever, as undeniably catchy as it is a goofy one-off. “Ya mama’s got a glass eye with a fish in it” or “ya mama’s got a peg leg with a kickstand” — and those are just two of the loudest gems in the bunch. It’s a perfect introduction to the zany energy and biting humor of the Pharcyde, but more than that — under all those jokes — it shows their deep connection with the culture they grew up in. If “Ya Mama” seems silly, it’s because the jokes themselves are, but the tradition it comes out of — the insult game the Dozens — tells us more about these guys than how funny they are.
In fact, what might have been best about Bizarre Ride on it’s release — the group’s irrepressible charm and wit — is not what’s made it last. Instead, it’s an album that is both dedicated to culture and musical history and an album that never hides behind its jokes. If the old adage about there being truth behind all jokes is true, then the Pharcyde flips that script, and instead puts the truth — a deeply personal one at that — right up next to the joke.
Looking at the album from a purely sonic level, it’s got a deep understanding of where it came from. It does not merely borrow from the high-tension wire squeals and pounding beats of West Coast gansta rap (though there is some of that) but instead borrows from a multitude of sources that reach into a deeper history. It’s no wonder they call out “sign[ing] on the dotted line” and “rapping for the money” on “It’s Jiggaboo Time,” because a song like “4 Better or 4 Worse” is, despite its jokey intro, all business. Like Oakland rapper Del the Funky Homosapien, the Pharcyde pay tribute to funk music here, with a somber thump that would line up nicely with anything on Del’s dark sophomore effort No Need For Alarm. It’s no wonder the Pharcyde got to tour with Ice Cube since Cube took such a shine to Del’s oddball antics and smooth rhymes as well.
Despite its scratch-heavy tendencies, “Oh Shit” finds the Pharcyde coast-hopping to align with jazz-based acts like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Once again, Ice Cube comes to mind, since he collaborated with East-Coast production crew the Bomb Squad on his classic AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Like Cube, the Pharcyde takes the smoother, more shadowy parts of East Coast rap (all produced brilliantly by J Swift, except “Otha Fish”) but doesn’t use them to calm down. Instead, they infuse it with not just their unbridled energy but also all the South Central tension brimming in 1992. The same happens on the leaner, angrier “I’m the Type of Nigga” and later it gets slowed down into the narcotic but still seething “Otha Fish.” Bizarre Ride’ so often combines smooth elements in the beat with the harsh rhymes of its emcees — all four of them, Slimkid Trey, Imani, Fatlip, and Booty Brown, all rap like they’re on fire — that the two poles mesh seamlessly. Once you get through the hype volume of “Oh Shit” and the troubling second half of “4 Better or 4 Worse,” you are firmly in the world of the Pharcyde and, as strange as it is, it also makes its own kind of sense. It meshes traditions — jazz, funk, hip-hop — that seem disparate, but they all share tensions sparked from class and race and, with this album coming just months after the L.A. Riots, these beats are either prescient (recording began in 1991) or amazingly thoughtful.
The stories themselves are deeply detailed, and (not to overstate it) typically hilarious, but they are also exposed. These are not pranksters unwilling to let us in, but rather they wear their tensions and insecurities on their sleeves. In “On the DL,” we hear of a crazy night of sex, but we hear about it after the fact. Instead of the details of a tryst, we have our narrator waking up next to the girl, thinking about what happened and, “I’m not ashamed to say” heading to the bathroom to masturbate. It’s an odd turn, especially since he slips out of his “underroos,” and it feels wistful even if it is only the morning after. It’s a funny scene, yes, but there’s also something strangely poignant about it, since he can already feel a distance between he and the girl he fantasizes over.
The same kind of heartache gets ampified and perfected on “Passin’ Me By.” Over that skronky, shuffling, organ-heavy beat, and with Fatlip’s torn-open singing on the chorus, the group’s members all remember heartbreak and loss. A bit more time has passed here but the ache only seems to have grown, and even when Fatlip accents these perfect verses with his wail that “shit always keeps passin’ me by,” the members also drop mentions of the likes of Elvis, aligning not just musical history but the history of heartbreak with those who came before them. The hurt feels fresh, but this isn’t all spine, not all forced out shapeless emotion — these guys are true to themselves, but somehow always humble in the face of what came before them. So while the excess of emotion on “Passin’ Me By” may seem like its most potent selling point, it’s the control and context with which it’s delivered that makes it so powerful.
“Officer” delivers another side of the group’s tension, while once again paying tribute to music, this time to more current influences in hip-hop. The song starts with a riff on Chuck D’s line from Public Enemy’s “Black Steep in the Hour of Chaos” (“I got a letter from the DMV the other day, I opened and read it, it said they were suckers”) and from there we get a tale of getting pulled over with a suspended license. The tension escalates with cartoony fervor, right up to the stuttering, nasal line “I’m discomboberated” (which just sounds, syllable for syllable, like a nod to Del’s “Mistadabolina”). But with the sirens rising in the mix, and that squealing J.B.’s sample lifted from the Public Enemy tune, you feel the very real fear behind the scene. Oddly enough the humor is at its thinnest here and yet it is also one moment where they seem to hide behind it. To oversell and caricature the fear here, since they haven’t done it on the rest of the record, somehow makes it all more real.
These are the kinds of paradoxes Bizarre Ride thrives on. The beats are loud, but the elements laid on top of them laid back. The music is spacious but the rhymes are bunched-up with tension. The album is funny, from the skits on down funnier than most hip-hop records that try much harder to be funny, but it never distracts you from what it’s saying. What truly gets all these disparate elements over, though, is that Bizarre Ride feels genuine. In a genre driven by personas, from the over-the-top self-worship of Kanye to the fabricated don-ness of Rick Ross, sometimes it’s refreshing to hear people who are genuinely eccentric, who are weird on their own terms. Bizarre Ride is honest about its time, its place, its music, and its feelings. That doesn’t stop it from being infantile when it wants to be, but that infantilism doesn’t stop it from being a damn smart album, and one of the best of the early-’90s hip-hop boom.