With a name like Lyrics Born and more than a decade’s worth of experience in Bay Area underground hip-hop, you’d think Tom Shimura’s top priority would be his rhymes, though that isn’t quite the case here. They’re definitely up there, but on As U Were more so than on his previous albums, Lyrics Born’s main attraction is the funk. Which is to say that the words are good but the beats are better.
Shimura, who cut his teeth as half of the early ’00s group Latyrx and is co-founder of the Solesides collective with the likes of DJ Shadow, the Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel, never really subscribed to the cold intellectualism that self-consciously underground hip-hop is known for. At his shows and on the live album Overnite Encore, Shimura is backed by a funk band, which makes sense for the George Clinton-esque tendencies he seems to have adopted. Like The-Dream, who’s also captivated by the late-’80s intersection of funk, electronica and R&B, As U Were abandons crate-digging for 808 snares and pop clichés; “Coulda Woulda Shoulda” borrows the drum line to “Billie Jean,” “Pushed Aside/Pulled Apart” is clearly aping “Push It” and the first single, “Lies X 3,” alludes to the Thompson Twins’ 1983 hit.
But this is still an album by a veteran of West Coast independent hip-hop, so much of the lyrics reflect the sort of introspective and self-deprecating outsider’s perspective that we’ve come to associate with Bay Area rappers. “I’ve Lost Myself” is exactly what it sounds like: a self-doubting lament with lines like “God please come and save me/ Can’t make it on my own/ All I need is just a little gravy.” That song’s “Hell yeah I’m moody/ Man, this shit is so confusing” sounds like a sentiment Eminem might utter if he were more sulky and self-pitying than bitter and jealous.
Yet, as a rapper that strongly identifies with independent hip-hop, Shimura often paints himself in opposition to radio stars. For years his albums have featured skits distancing himself from them — from a track on his solo debut, Later That Day… about his low bank account balance, for example, or a gag here about starting a Lyrics Born cereal brand — but that joke starts to sound somewhat stale when he’s making overt musical references to Prince and Michael Jackson. Not that his music is any worse for his underground ethos — anything but, in fact — it’s just that he distances himself from the mainstream while still making blatant pop music, which comes off as kind of silly. As a funk or electro album, As U Were is fun to listen to. A little cheesy, maybe, but it gets the proverbial party started, which is always a clear sign that something’s going well. It’s when Lyrics Born tries to hang on too tightly to his old roots that things start to get messy.