I should admit from the jump, I’m not a huge Action Bronson fan. I don’t know any of his lyrics by heart or keep a poster of him on my living room wall, but as far as white rappers go, he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, which goes a long way. Personally, I’m still rinsing out the taste of Macklemore and Iggy Azalea’s two-person colonization of hip-hop in 2014. It’s not that I don’t like white rappers—Eminem is clearly one of the most skilled practitioners of the art—but there is a deep-rooted sentiment most recently trumpeted by pop vixen/cultural agitator Azealia Banks that hip-hop is our shit and this renaissance of white rap (we should really add r&b as well) is really just erasure by another name. There isn’t an American music form that didn’t originate in some way from the experience of Black people in America—blues, jazz, rock, and all the children of the pentatonic scale owe a debt to the field hollers and religious music of former slaves and their descendants—yet those forms are largely dominated by white artists today. It’s the rare white artist that can navigate this racially volatile history of appropriation and extract what feels like a uniquely genuine voice.
Action Bronson’s Mr. Wonderful accomplishes this by delving deep into the personal idiosyncrasies of the creator himself. Physically Bronson is a husky, bearded white man who wears his girth with confidence and swagger, recalling his predecessors Big Pun and Notorious BIG. Lyrically he doesn’t compare to these legendary wordsmiths (he’s no slouch, but far from GOAT material), but what he lacks in sheer bars he compensates for with a wackiness that borders on the absurd. Absurdity we find is the currency of Bronson’s imagination. He rhymes in non sequiturs involving girls, food delicacies, and guitars with equal gusto. The latter festish also shows clearly in the album’s instrumentation. Electric guitars, Harley Davidson cycles, and archetypal Americanisms resonate throughout the work, evoking another white former rapper, Kid Rock. But whereas Kid Rock’s America is all ego, testosterone and double-D bikinis; Bronson’s Americana is wistful, reflective, though ultimately no less a fantasy.
New York is the other unspoken character in Bronson’s major label debut. His delivery recalls not so much a particular rapper, but all the New York rappers of bygone times, a style which has largely been supplanted in the mainstream by one owing more to Master P and Lil Wayne than Nas or Biggie. There are traces of Ghostface Killah in his delivery, but Bronson is far from imitating; more practically, it’s just the coincidence of a common regional flow and his affection for loose, train-of-thought lyrical hijinks. His content and delivery—breaking down in the middle of an opening song to chastise himself—are more in line with Eminem’s self-effacement and play into Bronson’s real superpower: likability.
Bronson clearly situates himself in the tradition of hip-hop as a party emcee. In his playfulness and excursive transitions, he is reminiscent of the Native Tongues style of whimsical production. He spends an entire track on his debut album singing almost unintelligibly over a psychedelic groove that sounds like a lost Nuyorican symphony. He shouts out his mom, features Chance the Rapper singing a hook, and just about completely eschews any other marquee feature. This smacks of a man who is either supremely confident or utterly indifferent to mainstream demands. My suspicion is the former, but then again—Bronson represents an evolving cross-section of hipster and hip-hop appreciation (hip-hopsters?). Predominantly white rap nerds scour the zeitgeist for projects like this, that recall the freewheeling sampledelic culture of the 80s and early 90s, before hip-hop became the modern day version of hair metal complete with drug-addled rock stars, barely clad women, and conspicuous consumption—before radio playlists condensed into nationally syndicated products incapable of breaking new regional artists.
Perhaps this is why this album seems to contain no obvious hits or urban radio plays. I have a suspicion white rock radio will embrace him, followed by urban formats. If this idea of white radio leading urban markets, or 2014’s trend of blue-eyed British soul singers dominating US charts and award season, or Mary J. Blige having to go to the UK to get her props, lights up your spider sense, you are not alone. White artists seem able to stretch the boundaries of genres without penalty regarding radio play in a way that only Kanye West and a few other Black artists like Jay-Z, Beyonce and Rihanna have.
Or maybe the impending total colonization of white rappers is overblown and rooted more in visceralities than truth–these moments in music are easily overblown. On last check, first week sales of Mr. Wonderful are projected at 35-37k, just above Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit… at 30-35k. Both below projected sales of 40-45k for kid’s cover franchise Kidz Bop, while Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly remains perched atop the Billboard 200 like a crow feasting on the carcass of discarded erasure.