First off, it has to be said: MC Paul Barman isn’t for everybody. The New Jersey MC who had his debut EP, It’s Very Stimulating, produced by the legendary Prince Paul has often been held up as the pinnacle of nerd rap (if that even exists) by those who can’t find room in their musical rotation for a Brown University-educated MC who is both honest and hilarious – and happens to be exceptionally talented on the mic.
But Prince Paul knew better. And so do a lot of other respected artists (more on them in the review). With his latest release, Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud, Barman is set to bring his brand of hip-hop to new heights and prove that he definitely belongs.
The album starts with a bang in the form of the absolutely incredible “Props”. ?uestlove (yes, that ?uestlove) and James Poyser serve up a hard-hitting beat, complete with scratched-in vocal samples in the chorus, that is sure to have your head nodding. For his part, Barman doesn’t disappoint:
I came to collect props like a property tax/From all you hate-to-laugh novelty acts/Your SUVs never been off terrain/
Your hiking boots only hike on the train/Your running shoes I’ve never seen running/You hate fags but collect shoes like a woman.
The stream-of-consciousness rapper then gets to spit over a DOOM production on “Go Sane” – and he doesn’t disappoint. The somewhat subdued beat is attacked by Barman, as he almost effortlessly puts as many words as possible into each line while riding on and off the beat. But he never fails to be clever. As he notes, there’s more knowledge in one song than the next man’s whole album.
“Hairy Moth Owl,” the first of Memory Man’s eight tracks on the album, opens with movie dialogue, but quickly morphs into a soundscape that epitomizes boom-bap. Barman even slows down his delivery at the start of the track, then begins to pick up the pace (“You search for your voice ‘cause you don’t hear what you say/If you gotta do something, do it today”) as he moves through each verse without a chorus. Barman gets an assist from his friends on “The Moon”, which is an another Memory Man contribution. Masta Ace opens the track with an updated nursery rhyme, so to speak, over a relatively sparse beat. When the host hops on the mic next, Memory Man adds some more heavy drums. And Barman responds by taking listeners to a trip to the “Metaphorest”. The beat changes once again, this time increasing in tempo and, for lack of a better term, boom. It’s then Del the Funky Homosapien’s turn as the moon, complete with numerous astronomical references, ups the ante for an already incredible song. By the time the beat has slowed to a complete stop, the vocal samples have kicked in and the beat returns, the listener is ready for anything. And it’s C-Rayz Walz who steals the show with his verse and we all end up howling at the moon.
Memory Man’s beat-switching production is showcased once again on “Owl Pellets”, where his almost bluesy guitar, coupled with a funky bassline and hard-hitting drums, is replaced by a beatbox mid-way through the song. It then gives way to another new beat for the final minute of the track. With Barman’s penchant for rhyming about a number of topics within any given song, the beat changes, which are utilized on a number of the album’s tracks, are a welcome addition and, quite frankly, can help decipher some of the MC’s meaning. Well, that and repeated listening.
Barman slows down his delivery over the Casual-T production “Allahu Akbar”, but doesn’t go lightly on the wordplay. Over the almost double-time beat, Barman flexes his lyrical abilities:
Can’t see me like a rock in tall grass/New millennium records are all ass/ I sign titties, lips, arms and hall passes/
If you wanna trace it as a tattoo fine/You’re a piece of work, but you’re not mine.
Prince Paul’s first contribution to the album is the synthesizer-heavy “Get Along Song”, which works as an updated version of the theme song to the ‘80s cartoon. While Prince Paul’s production creates a light, almost pop feel, Barman’s lyrics about friendship and camaraderie are the words of a mature artist.
The MC’s lyrical tour de force is the Memory Man-produced “Back on a White Horse”. The vocal sample at the beginning (which is the title) acts as a sort of bassline that Barman hops on gladly. While the song works through several beats, MC Paul Barman’s verbal dexterity is consistent. The MC spells out words within each rhyme – with an “audience” shouting the words once he completes them (My Intellect Reaps Rewinds on Repeat…Mirror; Crazy Lyrics Every Verse Every Rhyme…Clever; Adults Fear Teenagers Eagerly Retire…After), but that’s just the tip of his wordplay in the song. The first letter of each word in a line spells out a new word – ultimately spelling out his name. Take the time: listen for yourself.
Memory Man’s next track, “Science”, opens with an old school vocal sample, then morphs into a beatbox (again) that Barman rides closely before a series of scratched in samples (all of Science) finish off his bars. But, as is often the case with MC Paul Barman, there’s more than meets the eye. According to the artist, the track also spells out the album’s title in Morse code; the syllables he raps quickly are the dots, while the syllables he draws out are the dashes. Fortunately, he’s working on some YouTube videos to explain the “hidden messages,” if you will.
Barman teams up with DOOM again on the Prince Paul-produced “Hot Guacamole”. The Creedance Clearwater Revival sample (“Down on the Corner”) is familiar, but the two MCs make the song their own. While the track was originally included on MM…LeftOvers, it is a welcome inclusion on Barman’s solo disc. The chemistry between the two stream-of-consciousness rappers is evident – and the track is hot.
Memory Man is back to his beat-switching tricks on “Power”, but – once again – it’s MC Paul Barman who steals the show with his song version of Robert Greene’s book The 48 Laws of Power. While the MC only makes it through 24, he does promise numbers 25-48 on a sequel.
At 22 tracks deep, the album touches on a lot of topics – with nary a mention of the sexual escapades that dominated his earlier recordings. In fact, the mature MC Paul Barman addresses the debate over intellectual property (“Sampling Law”), the loss of an addict friend (“Drug Casual-T”), as well as two tracks about circumcision (“For Skins” and “Circumcision”). And that doesn’t even touch on the songs that are even more experimental than the standard MC Paul Barman track (“Lidgeon”, “Losing a Puppy”, “Divorce” and the haunting “It Can All Be Taken Away”).
At the end of the day, Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud is an album that requires repeated listens – if only to pick up on Barman’s intense wordplay and messages. It’s also an album that requires repeated listens to admire the production work of legends like Prince Paul and ?uestlove, as well as lesser known talents like Memory Man and Casual-T. And it’s also an album that requires repeated listens because it features Masta Ace, Del the Funky Homosapien, C-Rayz Walz and DOOM.
With friends like that, how can MC Paul Barman still have enemies?