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SPIN Essentials

Action Bronson, ‘Blue Chips’ (Fool’s Gold)

Action Bronson
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 12, 2012
Label: Fool’s Gold

Plenty of rappers have had to overcome comparisons to their elders, but very few have it as tough as Queens MC Action Bronson, who through little fault of his own, sounds more or less exactly like Ghostface Killah. So on the ninth track of Blue Chips, his new mixtape with producer Party Supplies, the beat drops and Bronson finally lets it out: “Don’t ever say my fuckin’ music sound like Ghost shit.” It’s a misreading of the criticism (it’s his voice, not music, that bears the resemblance), but anyway, as mom always said, actions speak louder than words, and it’s with Blue Chips, not bluster, that Bronson finally shakes the ghost of, well, you know.

The chef (of the Thomas Keller, not Raekwon, variety) turned rapper broke through last year with Dr. Lecter, an album that showcased his obvious talent as a writer (he’s not too shabby in the kitchen, either) while sticking to the rapid-fire punch lines and chopped-up funk and soul samples of golden-age New York City hip-hop. There was obviously something there, but despite its idiosyncrasies (nerdy food references, name-dropping of old athletes) the album was too often pro forma; it left you with the lingering fear that Bronson could pump out albums just like it without ever really improving on his formula.

Well, Blue Chips squashes all that: It’s everything Dr. Lecter was, but better, with a few crucial differences. Most importantly, Bronson is now a far more clearly defined character. Where he once hung his apron on dazzling wordplay and a few recurring subjects, here he illustrates a lifestyle that transcends just kicking shit for laughs. The Bronson on Blue Chips exists in a place somewhere between Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Grand Theft Auto, if the latter was focused less on violence and more on smoking weed and having sex. The first track takes us from Nagano to the Galapagos (where Bronson eats tacos and gets “high as an opera note”), while the chorus of “Tan Leather” features a rather impressively simple narration of eating roasted bone marrow on toast. Throughout, he hits Quebec and Thailand and plenty of places in between, harnessing the full power of his imagination by laying the world at his feet.

But, Blue Chips also has a seedy underbelly. Bronson fixates frequently on low-end prostitutes (crack addicts who piss through their fishnets and shit on buildings), and he routinely references his attorney (on retainer, presumably). The production is grimy, with a noirish streak that underscores writing that, at its best, recalls the scuzzy premium late-night cable of decades ago. The highlight here is “Hookers at the Point,” in which Bronson plays the role of narrator, prostitute, pimp and patron, enlivening each character (and verse) with a fairly ridiculous voice (he’s still a jokester at heart). But there’s sadness in the augmented reality — the girl skirts the law by blowing a police captain, the john is a dope fiend who falls asleep on the toilet — that adds depth to an album (and career) that still puts punchlines above all.

He’s also more comfortable and confident than ever. Before, he often raced the beat, shouting his verses as if he could make them better by pure force. On Dr. Lecter, Bronson mostly seemed focused on thunderously announcing his arrival, but here the tracks are often more playful, accompanied by Party Supplies beats that echo his desire to, first and foremost, crack you up. Much of Blue Chips defies Dr. Lecter‘s unofficial mantra — “Fuck that sittin’-down-rap-type shit” — but that’s exactly how it should be. After all, Bronson’s a guy who hangs around all day smoking weed and eating gourmet meals. His music is stronger for accurately reflecting that lifestyle.

The album is by no means perfect (one day Bronson may have to incorporate legitimate hooks into his no-frills songs), but creating one of the year’s most dizzyingly fun rap albums is nothing to scoff at. Punchlines rappers can, and often do, seem dime-a-dozen, but with Blue Chips Bronson makes a compelling argument that none of his peers are as funny or as left-field or as rich in character. He has three more albums lined up for 2012, and if he continues this trajectory, he may be able to rest his case.