I’m a lover of language. Finding fascination in articulation, in quick wits and communicative flexibility built on onomatopoeia and metaphoric melodrama, is easy. It’s just a turn of phrase away. But learning a new language is another matter, particularly in music: There are as many languages evolved from those twelve notes as there are cultures in the world. Those notes may be the Rosetta stone, in this case a code-breaker’s book meant to decipher and reveal grander musical vocabularies, but they don’t (and can’t) guarantee an understanding of forms with which the listener is less than comfortable. Sometimes it takes the introduction of familiar elements to make the “words” make sense, to wring out fuller understanding from the isolated and unfamiliar and let it become something one can relate to.
Beyond the obvious contributions to our musical and cultural lexicons, my knowledge of Rap, from the beats to the words to the lifestyle, has been a stunted thing, withered and relatively undeveloped. Outside of mild, mainstream exposure to groups like Run D.M.C., Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Grandmaster Flash, N.W.A., and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince as a child and adolescent, this was a language in which I could only speak or understand a few choice phrases or buzzwords. Being a mostly Caucasian Midwestern suburbanite, self-professed comic book nerd, and rabid filmophile growing up in a Classic Rock environment only drove the wedge deeper. “Cardboard Castles”, the July 2013 offering from San Francisco-born rapper/slam poet George Watsky through his own Steel Wool Media, was for me a kind of emissary seeking to bridge the gap between the equally pervasive Rap/Hip-Hop and Geek-Chic cultures.
Watsky himself is bookish and unassuming in appearance, an Emerson-graduated representative of his core demographic who also happens to be a rap-loving, culturally savvy free-verse phenom and Internet sensation who has performed on stage since he was in single digits. “Cardboard Castles” is by and large an extension of the Def Jam Poetry sessions presented by Russell Simmons in which Watsky was featured during the sixth season, albeit with the expected Hip-Hop flair and production embellishments and a touch of mainstream Pop refinement, the result of which is a witty mutation of Ben Folds, Bloodhound Gang, Busta Rhymes, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Eminem.
Watsky’s third full-length studio endeavor, “Cardboard Castles” is a busy and ambitious record, succeeding in both parody (“The Legend of Hardhead Ned”) and pure socio-political commentary (“Tiny Glowing Screens, Pt. 2”) while the scope of each piece and the musical styles employed vary considerably throughout. Though perhaps meant merely to further broaden their aforementioned demographic—and necessarily tied together by Watsky and his cadre of guest contributors—this really made the disc a fun listen. I perceived a meticulous and personal level of involvement from Watsky to let more than just his words do the talking, to tell a story with the music equally rather than settling for sometimes-droning, producer-built, cookie-cutter backing tracks that could’ve just as easily been pasted behind any other artist doing his or her thing.
Of the disc’s seventeen tracks, there are numerous stand-outs that had me both chuckling and resonating along:
“Strong as an Oak” is a silly, acoustic-guitar-driven bit on being proud enough to follow one’s dreams despite being destitute. Comfortably poppy (and rife with lyrical references ranging from sagely Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi to the staple of suburban American family transportation, the Toyota Camry), it’s a very fitting first single. The Beatles and Cracker came together on “Tiny Glowing Screens, Pt. 1”, a Soul-vocal-infused Pop/Rock number lamenting humanity’s greediness and tech obsession while real connection ebbs away. This and the piano-accompanied follow-up monologue that was “Glowing Screens, Pt. 2” are arguably the best on the album. Work and working hard to get what you want from life is the “Moral of the Story”, the album’s second single. Guest artist Chinaka Hodge and Latin-themed backing adds street-style grittiness to Watsky’s pseudo-comedic social satire on “Kill a Hipster”, a cry for originality and rebellion against invasive, seen-it-all, Starbucks-and-Goat-Cheese toting hipster-types. “Hey, Asshole”, the third and final single, is a darker picture of Coldplay meets Kid ‘n’ Play, English singer Kate Nash’s lilting vocal sweetness floating hopeful above Watsky’s bullet-fast delivery of angst at opportunities missed and the subsequent reach for self-gratitude in the face of a depressive lull.
“Cardboard Castles” is active and intriguing, fun and provocative. This is a disc that’s proud to admit that it’s Hardcore-but-Not; it’s neither Gangsta nor Hip-Hop nor frat-boy Pop or Comedic self-dissection, though it plays at all of these with equal measure of the silly and the serious. For those Rap-deprived among listeners, there are more than a few moments when the contents of this disc will, in the opinion of this reviewer, speak volumes. One might find in listening to George Watsky more than a mere key offered from a promising, socially sensitive young lover of languages seeking to bring closer together these seemingly uncommon dialects: One might find the man and his work have a distinct language all their own.