Too often, the focus of New York rap, particularly the bringin’-it-back type, is on airtight perfection. Queens rapper Action Bronson’s Blue Chips, a collaboration with Brooklyn producer Party Supplies, is demo-like and imperfect, and much more interesting because of that. The beats are treble-filled, the volume often shifts between tracks, the pop-culture references are particularly random, and on a few songs, Action starts his verse over because he got ahead of himself, or cuts a rhyme off prematurely, modestly telling you what he was trying to say had he not garbled the lines. There is a tangible, flawed, weird personality behind Blue Chips, not an impervious MC.
Action Bronson is also a detail-oriented type of dude. And more than his wheezing, soft/hard flow, that’s what he shares with Ghostface Killah, the Wu’s eccentric, open-hearted hard-ass. “Thug Love Story 2012,” “Hookers at the Point,” and “9-24-11” are novelistic crime raps that demand you unpack the details; and the memorable stuff here is dirty, pretty poetry (“piss through your fishnets,” “got the work right by the grundle”). And Action is rap’s current king of nerdy references, which is something of a lost art these days. On Blue Chips‘ first three songs, here are just a few of the names mentioned: Houston Astros all-star third baseman and disgraced steroid user Ken Caminiti, New York society reporter George Whipple, and professional wrestler Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff.
You can’t contrive this clump of weird knowledge. It’s in Action’s noggin because he’s a baseball and wrestling obsessive, and presumably, because he watches a lot of NY1 (the City’s local cable-news channel). He’s probably made plenty of jokes about George Whipple’s eyebrows like every other knucklehead. But what he’s doing here isn’t just about flexing his nerd-knowledge muscles, he’s letting you into his brain, so you can wander around and get a sense of what’s going on in there. All the best rap uncovers the personality behind the rhymes in much the same way.
Producer Party Supplies’ beats occupy an Internet-era approach to “digging” that lets the sounds come from anywhere and still get chopped up into gulping, Marley Marl loops. “Thug Love Story 2012” features the most tripped-out use of the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” since The Field’s “From Here We Go Sublime.” Similarly used samples of the Four Seasons’ “Beggin” on “Intercontinental Champion,” and Dean Martin’s “Return To Me” on “9-24-11,” suggests a knotty relationship with the golden oldies. A young white dude rapping gritty street tales over music that, to old white dudes, represents some untouched era of nostalgic white cool, is some sly commentary. And those songs take on a deeper poignance given the amount of time Bronson spends referencing an unsupportive father (“Daddy disapproved of my life, just like I’m Marvin Gaye,” from “Tapas”). Something’s being worked out here.
At the same time, Action Bronson is something of a man out of time. He’s an old-fashioned craftsman (at both rhyming and cooking), and a pre-feminist, politically incorrect type who calls people “retard” and “half a fag,” and unapologetically loves food and hookers. I’ve spent a lot of time praising “regular guy rappers” like G-Side or Stalley, but Action’s a different kind of working-class, salt-of-the-earth type. He’s a street-savvy, sensitive asshole that John Cassavetes could’ve based a whole tragic, funny, touching, ugly film around. You got a good sense of that on his other mixtapes — the cohesive Dr. Lecter and boom-bap facsimile Well-Done — but it’s so raw and uncooked on Blue Chips that it’s hard to deny.