Release Date: November 27, 2012
Action Bronson is a deft rapper, sure: a formalist, a casual virtuoso, a fat man with big lungs and superlative breath control. He’s from Queens, which automatically makes him a New York rapper, with all the grasping, palm-sweating expectation that designation implies. This has been a city in constant need of a savior, and to rap in one of the five boroughs is to inadvertently apply for the job. His qualifications for the position are impeccable — that Ghostface-reminiscent rasp, the flawless internal rhymes, the outsize personality — and, at the same time, irrelevant. New York rap nostalgia, like most nostalgia, is ultimately about a longing not for skill but for place: M.O.P.’s Brownsville, Nas’ Queens, Cam’ron’s Harlem.
And Action Bronson, perhaps more than any New York rapper to come along in a while, understands this. Queens is not exactly the place that he’s rapping about, any more than the Wu-Tang’s Shaolin was Staten Island. But it is a distinct and recognizable universe, nonetheless. Just look at the cover of his new Alchemist-produced mixtape Rare Chandeliers. There’s an alligator, a wizard, a couple of henchmen in a white BMW. A woman naked but for some sausage links and the knife that is her left hand. Your host is in a tuxedo, a wolf’s head on top of his own head, a sawed-off shotgun in his hands, a whole skuzzy b-movie universe in his heart.
He’s got a worldview, see? Bronson raps in non-sequiturs about obscure athletes and bygone actors and rare cheeses. His bad taste is immaculate: Polo sweaters, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mr. Belding, Yogi Berra, “pineapple juice, roast turkey.” He favors producers, like the Alchemist, as drawn to grime and dirt and old soul as he is. To listen to Rare Chandeliers — or any of Bronson’s releases, from last year’s official bow, Dr. Lecter, to this year’s masterful mixtape Blue Chips — is to be located in space and subject matter, to be given what all great New York rap records have given: a vivid, distinct place in which to wander around and spend time. He’s not a storyteller, but he’s great on raw data. He has yet to really evolve, but he’s more himself all the time.
So, on Rare Chandeliers, we know he’ll talk about food and glowering former tennis pros, sometimes in the same handful of bars: “Serve like Ivan Lendl up in the rental / The cheese been assembled / They receiving health benefits and dental / The lamb was laced with fennel.” He’s a fat-guy fashion poster child and a hateful dirtbag — “You know her pussy getting ruined to the point where it doesn’t even work / Taz and Bugs Bunny on the shirt” — a colorful villain straight out of James Bond, jumping out the chopper on skis. He’s feasting dolo down in Eataly and still calling Mario Batali, the proprietor of that particular New York specialty food market, a “raging cokehead” in interviews. He’s a word-drunk absurdist, a guy who thinks out loud and changes his mind mid-verse: “Open up the abalone / Smoke the macaroni / Eat the cannelloni / Put the cameras on me / Take the cameras off me.”
You could just transcribe him all day. (Okay, one more: “Ayo, macerate the fruit / Tap it over Angel’s food / Yeah, we getting loot / Timbaland the boot / Kush is by prescription / Prolific in the kitchen / People on my dick because I’m vicious with the diction.” Just say that out loud to yourself once today, I guarantee you’ll feel great.) But the pleasure of Rare Chandeliers is as much in the feeling as in the technique. As with most of Bronson’s records, it’s a single-producer collaboration; the Alchemist, like his predecessors Party Supplies, Tommy Mas, and Harry Fraud, understands who he’s working for, turning out subterranean-shark bass lines and dusty guitar licks, theme music for a red-bearded pig hunting truffles in the rapidly gentrifying concrete jungle. Fellow rappers come aboard and go native: New York’s Roc Marciano sports “the garments that crawled out of the forest”; Black Hippy Schoolboy Q goes looking for Waldo; Yonkers hardhead Styles P cooks like Swanson.
Is this better than the other free mixtape Action Bronson put out this year? Has he “matured”? Has he moved past his debt to Ghostface and Big L and Kool G Rap? No, on all counts. Progress is the wrong metric here. Bronsonland is a place you enjoy spending time in or you don’t, and that does not seem likely to change anytime soon. SPIN typically rates records on a 1-10 scale. Where does Rare Chandeliers belong? Five Gary Paytons out of one Tommy Lasorda. One hundred piranhas. Four ice-cold bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. A full wolf-pelt headdress, waving in the shotgun breeze.