Beans’ compelling, danceable, somewhat absurd, and extremely enjoyable first album, Tomorrow Right Now, was proof that the ex-Antipop Consortium emcee could rock the mike solo. No Sayyid, no Priest, no problem. The pervasive synth hooks coupled with the Beans’ catchy choruses and over-caffeinated, what’d-he-just-say? flow made Mr. One Stripe Red’s solo album one of the pleasant surprises of 2003. Then came the more straight-ahead Now, Soon, Someday EP, which bordered on techno. It felt like a step backward, or at least a disappointing step into more conventional, less exciting territory.
Shock City Maverick is somewhere in the middle. It has less of Tomorrow Right Now’s trademark choruses (which were fun, but maybe a little gimmicky) and, like Now, Soon, Someday, Shock City Maverick’s production is cold and minimalist. It makes for a listening experience akin to watching Matthew Barney’s cycle of Cremaster films. Like ’em or hate ’em, Barney’s films inarguably beckon the viewer into his world. Beans’ world is one in which you, the listener, are inferior to him, Mr. Ballbeam, who spits about dehydrated thugs, Rockettes, moth-eating theories, anal sex, and your intellectual deficiencies too fast for you to quite catch up — even after ten or fifteen or twenty listens.
Shock City Maverick’s low points are its three instrumental songs, because Beans just isn’t Beans when he’s not rapping. They leave you wondering about their potential if he had just showed up behind the mike. What’s the point of repetitive, three-minute techno songs breaking the otherwise delicious flow of one of hip-hop’s more exciting rappers? Are these comedowns, akin to the skits that lace many other albums? If so, do they have to be so long?
But that’s the album’s only glitch. Without much doubt, Beans’ best individual songs yet are right here. “Death by Sophistication” is Rob Skee (yes, still more confusing self-references dot the album) at the glorious top of his game, rolling over an infectious beat and shifting his cadence (something he did too little of on Now, Soon, Someday) on a self-promotional chorus to note the metaphorical crowd, “screaming like a dick caught in a zipper.” The mesmerizing “I’ll Melt You” finds Beans proclaiming, “The link between Suicide, Sun Ra, and Bambaataa is Ballbeam,” and the following and final song, “Diamond Halo Grenade,” just might be his best so far, as, over a freezing cold, Computer World-style synth riff, Beans flows like a machine gun and emphatically “remains high post.”
By the way, all the self-aggrandizement never gets annoying because everything Beans does feels laced with a unique type of irony. He completely eschews samples, guest appearances, and tough-guy stances that pepper nearly every other hip-hop album — underground or not. He’s not carrying a gat, doesn’t spit his light beams through dense clouds of ’dro smoke, doesn’t have personal vendettas to exercise. Ironically, it’s this everyman stance that he uses as irony. Beans has every right to flash the bling of his big nameplate necklace like he does on the album cover because his rhyme schemes parallel Aesop Rock’s and his alone for their incredible density, conjoining like a neon sign bearing his own name.