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MC Paul Barman - (((echo chamber))) Music Album Reviews

MC Paul Barman - (((echo chamber))) Music Album Reviews

On his first album in nearly a decade, the absurdist rapper uses his enormous vocabulary to riff on race, class, and becoming a parent—but he still hasn’t outgrown fart jokes.

MC Paul Barman is back—and, yes, he still raps like that. It’s been more than 15 years since the esoteric New York rapper worked his way into the Napster download folders (if not always the hearts) of alternative hip-hop fans with his wry pileups of five-dollar words and cameos on Masta Ace and Deltron records. “It’s abundantly clear there’s profundity here,” he bragged on his 2002 album Paullelujah!, though that profundity was in the eye of the beholder. His shtick was virtuosic in certain respects—he’s probably never met a crossword puzzle he couldn’t solve—and stupid in others. Critics grew tired of him pretty quickly, but among a certain subset of hip-hop fans who use the word “quotable” as a noun, he remains a cult favorite.

Now 43, Barman is a relic of a far sillier alternative hip-hop era, the days of Dr. Octagon, Quasimoto, and Handsome Boy Modeling School. A few stray singles and features aside, he retreated from music after his 2009 album Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud, in part to focus on raising a family that he raps about quite often on his comeback effort, (((echo chamber)))—a significantly more grown-up outing than his early-’00s records. He continues to smash words together for the sheer absurdity of it, but he’s also rapping about what a picky eater his kid is and the toll having a three-year-old takes on your sex life.

Although Barman is further removed from the hip-hop vanguard than ever, “the crested bird of nested words” still has some tastemakers in his corner. Questlove produced a good chunk of the record, and his minimalist beats and distinctive drums cleverly play on the lighthearted spirit of ’80s rap. MF DOOM provides a pair of beats, including the wonderfully loony “(((believe that)))”—one of two songs featuring Open Mike Eagle, who is perhaps Barman’s most relevant kindred spirit at the moment. Mark Ronson offers a knowingly obnoxious interpolation of the Christmas standard “Sleigh Ride” on “(((happy holidays))),” while Barman’s onetime mentor Prince Paul produces “YOUNGMAN Speaks on (((race))).”

That track, which is the album’s centerpiece, finds Barman attempting a feat at which few white rappers have ever succeeded: He tries to say something insightful about whiteness. And he comes closer than most, even if the song sometimes feels like a flood of loosely connected thoughts in search of a thesis. “Race is a lie/It just makes poor whites never taste of the pie,” he raps. “‘I’m not white, I’m Italian’ harkens back to when swarthy was almost as unworthy as black men.” Reflecting on his own heritage, he points out that, “Jews speak the language of both privilege and genocide/We've only recently been invited to dress up in their tennis whites.” Messy as they are, Barman’s musings on race, class, and parental responsibility give the record some weight and structure. His M.O. is no longer just wordplay for wordplay’s sake; he’s finally trying to mine meaningful ideas from his enormous vocabulary.

Too often, though, he stops short when it counts. Asked to explain the provocative title (((echo chamber))) in a recent interview, Barman gave a vague answer about how echo chambers represent the groupthink that’s “pushing us backwards towards tribalism and false divisions.” That response doesn’t remotely pass the smell test. As any Jew with an online presence—including Barman, surely—is aware, those triple parentheses are an anti-Semitic symbol used by white supremacists to single out Jews for harassment. (“It’s closed captioning for the Jew-blind,” as one since-suspended Twitter account put it.)

If you’re going to co-opt such a loaded symbol, you’ve got to at least explain your rationale or demonstrate how you (like some Jews on Twitter) are trying to reclaim it. But Barman ducks that responsibility, and that evasiveness is part of a pattern on (((echo chamber))). Whenever he begins to touch on anything too personal, controversial, or difficult, Barman retreats, defaulting to his usual irreverent word salad. “With each heartbeat repeated and fart meat excreted, I spark offense against the dark arts’ heat, neat!” he raps on the title track. Promising as the maturity he shows elsewhere on the album may be, it’s probably for the best that this guy never tried to pass himself off as the voice of a generation.

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