White Riot

It's a nerd thing: MC Paul Barman has got the white stuff.

White people long to be funky. They want elasticity: the rubber knees, the fluid flow, the boiling blood, the innate understanding of the rhythms they pine to create. They want the funk; they are willing to give up everything for the funk. But the funk remains buried by centuries of oppressive Caucasianism.

Many foolishly -- though understandably -- try to mimic those who possess the funk, but they end up looking like honky clowns. They turn their hats just so, tie their laces exactly as loosely as our brother over there. They buy black and try their damnedest to nail the handshake, the 'tude, the vibe -- and in the process suck the life out of it all, because a brother doesn't have to work on any of this; it just is, yo. We tryin' too hard, man; as long as we keep doing so, the funk will remain laughably out of reach, and we'll end up like the lone white dude at a Five Points playground pickup game.

You think Eminem had it bad trying to break into rap? At least he shared a common class with his peers. MC Paul Barman's an Ivy League Jew; he sounds like one, and he ain't hiding it. He defiantly, courageously (foolishly? annoyingly?) pounces on rap as his creative outlet, and the results are, for better or worse, unlike any other rap album you'll hear this year: a white dude doing rap, keenly aware of his place in its world.

Paul Barman graduated from Brown University in 1997; soon after, he dropped a debut single with the defiantly unghetto title "Postgraduate Work." Producer Prince Paul, who will always be best known as the producer of De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising, liked the single and contacted Barman, and they created a follow-up EP, "It's Very Stimulating." It was well-received, probably because of the certainty of Barman's vision. From there, the rapper has gradually worked his way into the upper echelons of the American hip-hop underground. He's got guts, style and an incredibly distinctive voice.

His debut album's just come out, and it's called Paullelujah! You'll either love it or want to hunt MC Paul Barman down and kill him, depending on how open you are to a weird, brilliant hip-hop oddity -- and depending on how rigid your definition of "keepin' it real" is. If you like rap and are interested in exploring a brother from another planet and are compelled by the dalliance between hard-funk production -- some of the best beats of the year, most created by an obscure producer named Mikethemusicguy -- and an annoyingly clever lyricist with a potty mouth, check Paullelujah! It's fun as hell, one of the best nonstop party records since Three Feet High (even though Prince Paul only produced one of the record's thirteen tracks).

On Paullelujah!, Barman sets songs in an anarchist bookstore, at a National Organization for Women rally (where he proceeds to have nasty sex with Genevieve, who "has a whole henna sleeve that says/'Who cares what men achieve?'/Under her arm/America's Wrong, by Erica Jong"), a high school, a Nazi death camp ("Gramps made a damn nice lampshade/They stretched his tanned flesh out like a Band-Aid without the sterile pad/As feral lad, did you feel in peril, Dad?").

In these places, MC Paul Barman lets loose, and when he starts rhyming, you'd better have a napkin handy, because he's going to get spit all over your face. His voice has absolutely no black in it whatsoever. None. He's as white as Jerry Seinfeld. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have confidence; like the runt so outsized on the playground that he just goes fucking nuts on the bully, Barman gets going and hangs on from there. His rhymes tumble down the hill like a slalom skier in the middle of a career-ending crash. But within these brilliant catastrophes are angles and bends and twists and sprains that on first, second, third listen will pass you by, no matter how smart you think you are. At one point Barman even threatens to start rhyming in Morse code.

Of the thirteen tracks on Paullelujah!, only "Old Paul" captures its essence. It takes the form of an imagined autobiographical obituary: "I'm gonna take a lackadaisical ride on my back-in-the-day cycle," he says, overpronouncing every syllable. "Old Paul gave rap a cold call/The Caucasoid had the whole block annoyed/It took big gilded gold balls to smile at terror and trial and error." He then ponders the charge against him of ripping off a culture: "Is it 'cause I go for the laugh?/Because I'm not from the Ave.?/Because I target fans you wish you didn't have?/Had I made a mockery of a culture like the Choco-Taco?/Was I to rap what France was to Morocco?" Then, at the height of Old Paul's imagined career, he stops, retires: "I pressed control-Q in full view of my old crew/Instead of hustling cameos and picking out Grammy clothes, I make stuffed animals while my family grows."

New Yorker subscribers are gonna be giggling nonstop throughout Paullelujah!, if they can stomach the smut (of which there is much: Don't let this anywhere near a twelve-year-old boy; it will become his favorite album, ever). Barman name-drops the following people on Paullelujah!: Garrison Keillor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Woodward and Bernstein, the Keebler elf, Principal Asswipe, Erica Jong, Republicrats, Margaret Sanger (including the classic line "More anger than Margaret Sanger sitting on a bloody coat hanger"), Quetzalcoatl, Ric Ocasek, Jeff Koons, John Cage ("I can rock the mike to silence by John Cage"), Jesus H. Christ ("where H. stands for 'holy crap!'"), Don Quixote, Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, Al Hirschfeld, Noam Chomsky, Tipper Gore and, in the gloriously bawdy (okay, totally nasty) "Cock Mobster," Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan ("who said, 'Lay me, mon'"), Cynthia Ozick, Kim Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Teri Garr and Sigourney Weaver, all of whom Barman fantasizes about in the course of the song.

Yes, anyone can name-drop. And aren't we all impressed by how well-read the MC is? But, as in comedy, timing is everything in rap, and Barman possesses a crazy control, simultaneously working to maintain a rhythm and a comedic tension, and when he succeeds, the deft merger of his verbal style -- always a tad clumsy and white -- and punchline is laugh-out-loud funny. He's as quick as Don Rickles, getting into verbal pickles just so he can unstick himself. He's digging in some very different cultural crates than your average MC, and this examination, although at times buried in a lot of giggly sex talk, is an important step in the progression of hip-hop.

Ultimately, though, we land back at the funk. And who cares how clever and smart MC Paul Barman thinks he is? If the rap ain't funky, the thing ain't gonna fly. Luckily, the thing is strong and sturdy, built to carry a dance floor intent on cooking some hip-hop. It's a solidly produced party record that recalls, most closely, De La's Three Feet High, at least in spirit. It's bouncy, happy and poppy, for the most part, and it stands far removed from some of its dirtier-sounding peers in the Anticon and Def Jux camps. Within is a sort of direct cleanliness: woodwind samples, horn-section blasts, bouncy carnival-brass sections, Spanish guitar lines -- all of which loop in odd but ultimately satisfying ways.

Pure white and pure black make what? Pure gray? No, not really. More like both, and the tension, imagined or real, drives Paullelujah! somewhere fascinating and surprising. Besides, if you're not down with the style, you can stick with the words. Says Barman, "If I had any rhythm maybe you'd finally faint/The way I communicate would make a dang eunuch mate."

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