Never Better? (In Which I Compare Myself to Barack Obama and Make A Messy Metaphor)

Never Better, the new album from punk/rapper P.O.S. (also known as Stefon Alexander), has received a veritable bukkake bath of critical praise since its release, and the general approval lavished upon his mixture of punk/rock and hip-hop certainly got my attention. It was what persuaded me to listen to Never Better and while I’m not going to entirely despunk his Minnesota mug, I’m not gonna be adding many dollops of my own “acclaim” to the pile. This metaphor brought to you by stem-cell research. Deal with it.

I want you to participate in an exercise: think of any bands you can that have successfully combined rock and rap into something listenable. If you thought of Linkin Park, you’re an idiot. If you thought of Anthrax’s collaboration with Public Enemy on “Bring the Noise”, your heart’s in the right place, but if that’s the best you can do, it ain’t good enough. P.O.S. probably pulls it off better than most people, by which I mean he manages to make it actually good on one song, listenable on a couple of others, and basically like Linkin Park on the rest.

Part of the problem is that Never Better is intense and it wants you to know that it’s intense. Stefon Alexander knows everything that’s wrong with everything and he’s mad as hell about it (in opener “Let It Rattle,” he wastes no time calling his audience “Pfizer babies” and then asking, “Do you really think a President can represent you?” Let me answer: yes. Yes I do. Our current President isn’t perfect, and I’m not one of those people who thinks that all of our problems are gonna magically go away because of him, but let’s consider: he’s smart, devilishly handsome, in favor of ending the war in Iraq and closing Gitmo, he’s in love with a stunningly beautiful woman. Shit, this guy could be me. He even likes Wilco and The Decemberists. Granted, I never schooled John McCain in a debate, but I sure as hell could have). Now, I’m not some jingoistic, bible-thumping right winger, but one of my beefs with some political music is that it runs the risk of portraying the artist as the only enlightened person in a sea of… well, “Pfizer babies.” Granted, P.O.S. doesn’t do this on every song, but he does it enough on Never Better that I can’t ignore it. I want less “me” in my political music and more “we”. Take “Fake Empire” by The National – “We’re half awake/ in a fake empire”. Matt Berninger puts himself firmly on the hook with the rest of us because, all conspiracy theories aside, if your government sucks, you are partly responsible. Sage Francis often falls into the same trap as P.O.S., letting his anger out in a way that almost seems like he’s berating his audience.  If I give you my 20 bucks, I shouldn’t have to be called names. You know what I really want in a polticial song? Solutions. I want a song about how we should stop printing phone books; or how we should legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana and prostitution. Hold on — I think I’m gonna go write a song.

Okay, I’m back.

I realize I’m piling on P.O.S. here, but I should state for the record that the dude does have potential. “Purexed” is a perfect example of a fierce hip-hop flow wrapped around a beautiful melodic chorus. Unfortunately, Never Better also features three of the most cringe-inducing songs of 2009: “The Basics,” “Out of Category” (with a very annoying and repetitive hook), and the most Linkin Parkish of all, “Terrorish”, which features an embarrassing chorus that could very well be sung by that asshole from Linkin Park (yes, I know it was sung by some local punk icon, but it still sounds embarrassingly bad and I’m willing to be called all kinds of names by the guy’s fans for thinking so. If the singer in my band wanted to growl “Ee-oh-oh-oh” like that on somebody’s song, I’d tie him to a chair to prevent it).

As much as I had hoped that Never Better would disprove my theory that you can’t successfully combine rap and rock, it just doesn’t succeed on enough levels to make it work. It tries so hard to prove its intensity that it comes across as utterly humorless. Perhaps P.O.S. would benefit from listening to Pharaoahe Monch’s Desire album; Monch brought plenty of anger to the table but he also brought a ton of funk and was sure to include a couple of steamy tracks about fucking, which can be its own poltical statement. After all, no matter how bad things get, we will always have naked bodies to rub together and if your enemy thinks it’s a sin, why not do it and then sing about it afterwards?

Shit, I gotta go write another song.

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