How easy it is to root for the underdog. Underdog, for purposes of this review, will be Mars Black, the Brooklyn-born, Omaha-(yes, Nebraska)-raised emcee who was signed to fellow Cornhusker Conor Oberst’s Team Love label to share with the world Folks Music, his debut. If “Nebraska” and “emcee” in the same sentence don’t make you feel for this guy, you’re one cold S.O.B. Just frigid, you are.
Mars is a gritty, storytelling rapper, surprising for someone who’s probably surrounded by more cattle and wheat stalks than bullet shells and dice games. But as we’ve learned from grime (and 8 Mile), hip-hop is the language of the oppressed and disadvantaged, zip codes be damned.
In that regard, dude’s got plenty to say, relating his personal struggles with a hungry delivery. It works when he’s angry and animated, like in the great intro and “Year of the Tiger,” but fails when he’s bored and nondescript (“Crack the Whip,” “First Day”).
For the muzak, Mars keeps it local, bringing producer/friend E. Babbs on board to supply the rhythm and beats. Babbs brings some fire, exhuming Ultramagnetic-type tracks full of horns, scratches and concrete-hard kick drums. He loops a “Voodoo Child” guitar wah-wah to make “Spruce Vayne” sound like a Low End Theory outtake; flips a chiming melody for a drinking lullaby (“Scotch on the Rocks”); and gives the uneven tribute “Hey Ma!” (not a Cam’ron remake) a haunting piano line that saves it from the discard pile.
With so much ground covered, it’s hard to tell what’s next for the experimental spitter. In the press release that accompanies the album, Mars professes a love for folk music (hence the record’s title) and calls Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” “one of the best rap songs ever.” Folk-hop? Interesting. But don’t let me hear Bright Eyes cover “Lean Back” anytime soon.