steering clear of the mainstream
since 2001

june 2010

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info opinion

Jesse Dangerously

"How to Express Your Dissenting Political Viewpoint Through Origami" 2CD

Backburner Recordings

Genres: hip-hop

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Nov 15 - 21 2004

The track "Brainstorm", on Party Fun Action Committee's highly underrated Let's Get Serious, does a bang-up job of making rappers like Jesse Dangerously look like idiots. Featuring Aesop Rock's beatmaker Blockhead as a lisping Wyoming nerd-rapper who delivers such gems as "I speak the philosophies of 1833/I see Moses part the sea/I see Hercules lift the world/I've seen the fallopian structure of a squirrel", it is a fine example of this new trend of underground hip-hop nerds going out and making the music themselves. And with tracks like his cover of Tom Lehrer's "The Elements", Jesse Dangerously and his pretentious-sounding How To Express Your Dissenting Political Viewpoint Through Origami seem like the very embodiment of this little subculture.

And he is, and it's not a bad thing. Not at all. Jesse demonstrates that there are many advantages to embracing "nerd-rap". For one thing, this unpopular status grants him access to a ridiculously extensive collection of samples, which range from animé to the Muppets, and many more I couldn't recognize. They're used frequently and skillfully. In all of the bizarre samples on the album, there isn't a single one that sounds out of place.

Jesse is an exceptionally clever rapper. His rhymes are eccentric and coherent, ironic and honest, funny and yet solemn. He manages to do what a lot of good rappers still find themselves unable to do; he walks the fine line between the gratuitously ironic rhymes of MC Paul Barman and the incredulously oblivious ego of 50 Cent. It would be very easy for Jesse to get carried away in wordplay like "I don't exactly lisp but I've got trouble with my sybbaless", and it would be equally easy for him to turn the album into an ego-trip with rhymes like "I'm the best since DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince!" However, Jesse rarely sounds pretentious, despite the wordy title and wordy flow of the album.

In addition to more entertaining tracks like the bizarre "Otherworldly" and the cacophonic "Cinqo de Mayo", Jesse hands us a fair bit of autobiography which is at once poignant, funny, and exceedingly conscious - like the rap equivalent of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. He's very good at playing with different narratives, and at many moments on the album is evocative of a more playful Buck 65.

The only flaw with the vocals is, well, the vocals. Jesse's flow is not as crisp and articulate as many rappers out there. Simply put, he does not e-nun-ci-ate. When he tries too hard to spit a hundred words a second, he ends up getting kind of mumbly, which can be both a strength and a weakness. At his best he creates a very smooth flow throughout the song; at his worst he's simply incomprehensible. Most of the album, thankfully, is in the former, "best" category, so don't get too worried.

As far as production goes, I must admit that upon receiving this CD I was extremely skeptical about the glut of instrumental tracks and interludes. (9 of the 22 tracks feature no rapping whatsoever.) Considering the fact that his rap numbers essentially rode on the strength of his lyrical creativity, I just saw these instrumental tracks as filler-type copouts, beats which Jesse didn't have the time to write a rhyme for. Upon listening, however, they present themselves as legitimate songs worthy of an album of their own. Jesse is an extremely versatile instrumentalist, with songs ranging from the melancholy "Adormecido No Sol" to the genuinely groovy "Wicca Puffer".

Jesse's skills as a producer are evident here. Production, expectedly, isn't as clean as mainstream material; but is nevertheless far superior to most amateur beats. The creativity demonstrated in his beats, however, more than compensates for this fault: Jesse obviously knows how rhythm works and avoids the trap that most amateur hip-hop musicians fall into, in crafting simple, straightforward beats recycled from the inferior commercial acts. Not once does he regress to the bland bass/snare combo that mars so many other independent hip-hop efforts.

The production is such a strength on this album that when Jesse does lose himself vocally, the ingenious rhythms can carry the song on their own. He even manages to write a song in 5/4 and get away with it. And for all the rhythmical deviations he drops on us, it never seems to be different for its own sake. What he does genuinely improves the songs instead of being obnoxiously self-serving.

In the end, this aspect of the album is what sets it apart from mockeries like the aforementioned "Brainstorm" parody. How To Express is always bizarre, and always unconventional. But instead of being self-gratifying, it's strangely honest and highly individual. This is definitely something you won't be able to find in the mainstream, and missing this would be, well, missing out.


Engelbert K. Mutton

[Vitals: 22 tracks, distributed by the artist, released 2004]