It’s been nearly four years since Cool Kids announced themselves as rap’s most vocal throwback nostalgia act, discussing their preference in bike parts on “Black Mags.” It’s been three years since Cool Kids issued their debut EP, The Bake Sale, an EP that was supposed to be a warm up to their inevitable debut LP, the same year that they released a single (“Delivery Man”) on Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound. It’s been two years since Gone Fishin, the group’s finest long-form statement to date, the mixtape produced by mixtape heavyweight Don Cannon that was intended to preview the group’s “almost finished” debut LP, When Fish Ride Bicycles. It’s been nine months since the group announced they were free from Chocolate Industries, their longtime label, and saying they were “ready” for When Fish Ride Bicycles. It’s been five months since the Cool Kids announced that they were back in the loving arms of Green Label Sound, and would be dropping When Fish Ride Bicycles “soon.”
And now, it’s arrived. The Detox of the indie rap set, the Chinese Democracy of throwback boom-bap. Of everything you can say about Cool Kids, know this: When Fish Ride Bicycles exists. It’s got 11 songs, and one of them is named after Penny Hardaway. There’s even a superfluous Asher Roth cameo, and it was recorded with Pharrell Williams, in case you forgot that this is made with some corporate backing. When Fish Ride Bicycles exists, roughly 36 months after its arrival would have made SEO bucks, and when mags like Rolling Stone were still sniffing around. So in some ways, Cool Kids beat the Internet hype cycle by subverting it: You can’t call them a bust because they’ve outlasted all challengers by refusing to play. Kid Sister? Done. Kidz In the Hall? Done. Pac Div? Who? And here stand the Cool Kids, with a debut LP in tow.
But here’s the thing: the problems of 2011’s When Fish Ride Bicycles are the same problems that 2008’s theoretical When Fish Ride Bicycles would have had. As charming as they are in videos, Cool Kids are personality deficient, with both MCs relying on shout-outs to NBA Jam-era ballers (though a Larry Johnson “grandma-ma” reference is sublime), talking about physical properties of speakers (they go boom, more or less) and the summer, and rhyming more monotone than Dharma Initiative instruction videos. And once you figure out the essential thesis of their beats—that Eric B and Rakim perfected forever how hip-hop should sound—they start coming off as hip-hop’s answer to slowcore: Never changing, and moving like a glacier.
Which isn’t to say that Cool Kids were never deserving of the hype: Of course they were. Think back on the dire state of hip-hop circa 2007, and think how awesome it was that two Midwest dudes were “bringing ‘88 back.” When Fish Ride Bicycles occasionally rekindles that original spark, with the funky Neptunes-esque summer time jam “Get Right,” the bottom-heavy “Rush Hour Traffic” and “Bundle Up” and the Travis Barker-assisted “Sour Apples.” The far and away highlight here is “Penny Hardaway,” a video game soundtrack placement ready Kung-fu jam that has a delirious verse from Ghostface Killah, who is like an imploding supernova in the middle of the album, consuming everything around him.
Basically, your enjoyment of When Fish Ride Bicycles comes down to whether or not you’re willing to take 11 songs featuring beats of essentially the same tempo, lyrics that aren’t anyone’s definition of transcendent, and a style that, at best, is a shadow of stuff from the mid-‘80s. In some ways, When Fish Ride Bicycles represents an important evolution in hip-hop, in that it shows that careers can be built on nostalgia for old sounds, in the same ways that indie bands are making a living off their Depeche Mode record collection. When Fish Ride Bicycles was probably never going to be as good as hearing “Black Mags” for the first time, but no one could have bet that it would be this boring.