P.O.S., Never Better

P.O.S., Never Better

I honestly didn’t think he’d be able to pull it off. After 2006’s mind-crushingly awesome Audition, with its paranoiac rhymes, punk-rock-ified beats, popcult-fueled riffs on suicide and revenge, and full-on angry-ass vibe, I figured nah, there was no way Minneapolis skate-rapper P.O.S. would be able to come anywhere near that high-water mark, much less beat it.

I’m happy to say I was wrong. Never Better takes the musical motifs of Audition and stack ’em on top of one another, crushing the layers together like one gigantic fucking sandwich of sonic misanthropy. The popcult-ness is still in full effect, what with the lines/tributes to The Big Lebowski in opener “Let It Rattle,” the Fugazi ref and chorus-closing rhyme (and title, to boot) of “Savion Glover,” and the Stooges shout-out in “Get Smokes,” thankfully, as is the razor-sharp wordplay and punk sensibility.

If anything, though, Never Better improves on the Audition model — where Audition was full of fury and bile, a battle cry in a war against everyone and everything, Never Better is a thoughtful (yet still angry) rant. The whole thing is more measured, less crazed, like P.O.S. is deliberately holding back to let the outrage and pain and loneliness simmer under the surface. Or maybe it’s that he’s made progress since the last outing; he definitely sounds like he’s moving onwards and upwards with this release, even while having to deal with the ugliness and confusion of growing up with the spotlight shining in your face. In that sense, the title itself of the album could be seen as both truth in advertising and a sarcastic, defiant, middle-finger-up response to a world determined to beat us all down.

Take lead-off single “Goodbye,” for instance; I’m not sure who the title’s aimed at, because the lyrics to the track are doggedly determined, never-say-die in their message. P.O.S. stands up, refusing to get beat and declaring that we all need to not hate ourselves or let other people choose our destinities for us. And if the autobiographical nature of a lot of these tracks is to be believed (and there’s a heck of a lot more of him bleeding through, I think, than on past releases), he knows what he’s talking about.

These songs are about needs, whether he’s talking about the need to be loved and safe (the Sage Francis-esque “Been Afraid,” a murky, heartfelt-but-unsentimental chronicle of two damaged kids finding one another), the need to be accepted somewhere (the stuck-between-worlds “Out Of Category,” where P.O.S.), or the need to just plain survive (“The Basics (Alright)”). Through it all, P.O.S. is at his self-deprecatory best, deflating any hint of an ego with quirky bits of studio screwing-around and dropped lines, some of which turn out to be the best parts. One of my favorite moments in “Purexed” is when the rhyhmes trail off to nowhere and P.O.S. just shrugs: “I dunno, man. Me and Joe like real shit.” Then — boom — the song slams back in, loud as ever.

Setting aside my amateur attempts at psychological profiling, by the way, I have to say that it’s the sound of Never Better that grabs me more than anything else. Love the lyrics, yes, but damn… Lazerbeak’s taken a bit of a back seat this time, only producing the beats for about half the tracks, and for the rest P.O.S. grabbed the reins and made ’em all his own. Which explains somewhat the sheer density of the tracks, thick enough you can peel back layers like you’re cracking open an onion one piece at a time.

Seriously, this album is just about the densest piece of music I’ve heard in years of any genre. There’s sound piled upon sound here, to the point where it makes me listen and re-listen so I can catch the little nuanced bits lurking behind/beneath the up-front stuff — “hey, is that a sample of a woman screaming back in there?” Listening is like finding Easter eggs in your favorite video game. The overall gist is dark and murky, like always, but the elements are all over the place, from Portishead-esque jangly guitars to ’80s pop-metal synths to D.I.Y. percussion made on what sounds like plastic boxes. Frantic drums collide with sludgy, Mudhoney-style bass, hip-hop verses, and Strike Anywhere punk anthem choruses, sometimes all in the same track (see “Drumroll (We’re All Thirsty),” for one). P.O.S. breaks rules like they were never really there in the first place, except maybe in our minds.

In fact, at the end of the day, he’s almost done something entirely new with this album; this is probably the first true amalgam of hip-hop, punk, jazz, and shoegazery pop I’ve ever heard. Think I’m kidding? Nope — check the utterly fucking awesome “Purexed,” with its thundering, My Bloody Valentine-heavy sheets of gorgeously skyward-aiming guitars, speeding drums, chilly keys, droning melodies, and heavy-lidded raps. The only person I’ve ever heard come close to something like this is fellow hip-hop iconoclast Mike Ladd (who’s also known for ignoring the “rules” of the genre completely), but where Ladd drifts off towards the psychedelic, dropping-psilocybin-on-a-mountaintop set, P.O.S. dives head-first into the indie-kid mosh pit.

Now, I’ll admit that for me part of the guy’s appeal is the whole relational thing — me, I’ve never been in much danger of ending up a gangbanger slinging crack rocks on the street corner, getting into gunfights and burying my friends. So while I can like N.W.A., Ghostface Killah, and Mobb Deep, sure, it’s all at a distance; it’s cool, but it’s not something I can relate to in any personal way. Rhymes about never fitting it, trying to find one’s place, getting your heart broken repeatedly, and learning to fight back and carve out your own world, on the other hand…yeah, I totally get that.

P.O.S. and his Doomtree crew — Dessa, Sims, Paper Tiger, Lazerbeak, and Marshall Larada all make appearances here, by the by, and acquit themselves so damn well I’d keep an eye out for solo records from each real freakin’ soon, if there’s any justice in the world — they do this stuff for the love of the music and because this is how they talk through how the world works. Label this however you want; any way you look at it, Never Better is something pretty damn special.

(Rhymesayers Entertainment -- 2409 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN. 55405; http://www.rhymesayers.com/; East West Records -- http://www.eastwestrock.com/; P.O.S. -- http://www.myspace.com/pos)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Friday, February 6th, 2009. Filed under Reviews.

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One Response to “P.O.S., Never Better

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Sad News Time: P.O.S. Cancels Tour Due to Medical Issues on October 19th, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    […] P.O.S. — who has been my absolute favorite rapper in the universe since 2009′s amazing Never Better — has had to cancel his entire U.S. tour (for forthcoming album We Don’t Even Live […]

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