Album Review: Action Bronson & Harry Fraud – Saab Stories

[Vice/Virgin; 2013]

Action Bronson is a rapper who slices through the hipster/hard binary like a sharpened Cutco through sopressata. He is, simultaneously, for the jeeps and the fixed-gears; for the North Faced and the Goodwilled; for yesterday’s barber-shop-buzzed and today’s mustachioed vanguard. Ask your average 23 year-old hip hop head on Flatbush or Bedford Avenues who their top three favorite rappers of the moment are, and both will likely give the name Action Bronson.

One of the most zeigeist-y MCs of the most zeigest-y era since the early ‘90s has been satisfying headphoned ears now for nary a hat trick’s number of years, but it feels like the internet has been preoccupied with him for a decade. Maybe it’s his closest vocal analogue (Ghostface Killah) or step-cousins in girth (Fat Joe, Big Pun, et al) that cause Bronson to appear as a hip hop relic from 20 years ago. He’s so easily reminiscent — both inadvertently and willfully — of the non-digital age that he slips seamlessly into the “everything old is new again” tenor of 2013.

To date, all of Bronson’s popular releases have involved a single producer (another standard convention from hip hop’s bygone days) and the seven-track EP, Saab Stories, is his latest. This time it’s Brooklyn’s Harry Fraud who handles programming duties, a Swiss army knife of a producer capable of walking the tenuous line between dusty, sample-heavy throwback and trap-inspired commercial fodder. On Saab Stories, Fraud brings Action Bronson’s sound closer into line with that of mainstream convention than he’s ever been before, which is both a blessing and a curse, depending on how you prefer your “underground” rapper cooked.

Unfortunately, for the majority of the album, it sounds like Bronson is having the least amount of fun he’s ever had on the mic. I’m not sure how much of this you can chalk up to Fraud’s production, but many of the beats here feel claustrophobic in comparison to the stretched-out free form of Alchemist’s work on Rare Chandeliers and the charmingly lo-fi rough draft of Party Supplies’ Blue Chips. AB counts food and obscure WWF wrestlers among his favorite go-to lyrical references; the latter shows up in the form of a Marty Jannetty dropkick on “The Rockers” but the rest of the track, including a phoned-in cameo by Wiz Khalifa, falls flat. The same goes for “No Time,” a too-simple boom-bap formula that Bronson can’t save even with a funny, visceral “Mutombo finger” metaphor.

Elsewhere though, Bronson and Fraud make their collaboration work. “Seven Series” is imposing RZA-like grime with menacing guest shots by Prodigy and Raekwon. The trap-laden “Alligator” is an ideal hardcore, summertime riding anthem. Harry’s beat is serious and infers violence, but Bronson adds his characteristic levity with absurd tales of extreme wealth: “Baby my ride so clean, I ride so dirty/ I’m ‘bout to buy an alligator for my birthday.” Interestingly, the MC doubles-down on this track at the 2:22 mark where the beat dissolves into a blunted set piece about the flipside to all the song’s previous high-living. It’s an interesting turn towards the cautionary and something we’re not used to hearing from Bronson whose braggadocio and outsized swagger is generally set to maximum.

Still, we prefer Action Bronson when he’s extolling feats of monetary and sexual acclivity that border just this side of farce. “Triple Backflip” is the best example of that. On this lush stroll of a beat, our hero needs a pair of gators to match his vest. He ditches his sweatsuit after his intern robs a bastard for his money, and AB, in a final display of excellence, does a triple backflip into a red coupe before skating off with “something Spanish with a bubble.”

Bronson’s unique pedigree — he’s Albanian from Flushing, Queens, and a former gourmet chef — gives him broad appeal, which is why he’s stayed winning over the course of four albums now. Saab Stories is the least appealing of those, but that has less to do with the rapper and more to do with the production which doesn’t allow this extra-large personality to conflate alongside it. Action Bronson is a big man; he just needs room to breathe.