Busdriver is, ironically, probably not for the children. His music often alienates listeners, jolted by his unorthodox bars and beats, and endears him to those looking for a (metaphorical) bumpy ride. 2014’s “Perfect Hair,” released on Ninja Tune associate Big Dada Recordings, is Busdriver’s eighth solo album, showcasing a legacy built on experimental (yet technically proficient) beatboxing, a strong persona with impressive self-confidence and a remarkable sense of fearlessness and vitality.
Also known as Regan Farquhar, Busdriver joined Aceyalone’s collective Project Blowed at 16, honing from the start a uniquely bouncy and rapid flow, akin to a lyrical speed bag. His delivery features bullet-like phrases in off-kilter rhythms, as in “Imaginary Places” (the eponymous lead from his 2002 album) heard all over by Tony Hawk Underground enthusiasts. On that track, Paris Zax’s distinct sample of a flute hectically playing Bach’s “Minuet and Badinerie” underscores an even more hectic Busdriver nearly effortlessly in sync with the jagged melody. Busdriver revisited the combination of dynamic verses atop non-traditional hip-hop beats on “Nagging Nimbus,” rapping in 10/4 time over Paul Desmond’s “Take Ten” (itself a variation of Brubeck’s “Take Five”), and again on Jhelli Beam’s “Me-Time,” where he somehow goes hard over Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca.”
Busdriver’s affinity for synth-driven electronic sounds began on Jhelli Beam and appeared in earnest on the much maligned follow-ups, Computer Cooties and 2012’s Beaus&Eros, the latter an untraditional breakup album exploring Busdriver’s pop sensibilities. Though not endowed with an impeccable singing voice, Busdriver sings on almost all 14 tracks, a bold change-up pushing an MC once known for his unrelenting rapping further left of the dial.
Even following the poorly received Beaus&Eros, I was undoubtedly excited for some new Busdriver. To what new school of hip-hop was he taking us? He had remained highly experimental (though arguably overtaken by latter-day greats like Death Grips and Shabazz Palaces), but began shifting from an uncommon hyper-verbosity toward an uncommon glitchy production style with fewer organic instrumental samples. His rapping rhythm too changed slightly, utilizing sparser pockets of double-time rapping with abrupt beginnings and endings. My listening experience can be distilled to “ice-bath electrocution:” Busdriver maintained the pockets of energy in his rhymes and flow, which appear at nearly predictable rhythms but are syncopated to feel skittish and jumpy. Driver himself produced half of the album, though all tracks use incredibly synthesizer-heavy melodies with a medley of percussive textures underneath that add quite a bit of depth. The energy and hyperactivity present in his earlier rhymes seem to have been transferred to the underlying instrumentals.
Lyrically, Busdriver feels unrestricted, liberally floating over rhythm sections on nearly all these songs. While no song is quite as overwhelmingly Library of Babel-esque as “Imaginary Places,” no song can be described as easy to follow. Busdriver clearly enjoys exploring his lexicon, delivering dense, irreverent head-scratchers that sound marvelous. Born of a perhaps unhealthy, single-minded focus (“treating home studios like panic rooms,” as he explains on “When the Tooth-lined Horizon Blinks”), “Perfect Hair” begins with a mission statement. On the opener, “Retirement Ode,” he considers how the “seven days in which ‘Perfect Hair’ was recorded cost roughly everything.” This is his life’s work, and what he does, he does well: “You would never admit how sick I’ve become,…I’m a decent liar / and that’s a lie in itself but you knew that, come on.” Busdriver is at the wheel, guiding the listener wherever and as far as he wants to go.
Produced by Brainfeeder’s Jeremiah Jae, “Ego Death” opens with a woozy, dark and driving bassline with ambient industrial twitters surrounding Busdriver’s insistent chant, “We can make this better, but we’re not / Yes we will – we’re just looking for something inside us to kill.” His verse, frenetic as always, includes the smashing line “Down time is never met with an overjoyed grin / Cause sleep and death have always been conjoined twins.” Aesop Rock follows with a more tightly controlled segment, before Busdriver drops his voice in a bridge where he intones a low, guttural and sinister “I’m not done yet” that introduces Danny Brown’s stellar guest feature. Sure, not everything works. Some of the synths are irksome; much as I love Mike Gao’s solo productions, his chiptune-esque beats and overly bombastic melody on the chorus of “Can’t You Tell I’m a Sociopath” become too much on repeat listens. Some bars are hit-or-miss, especially the central conceit of “Eat Rich,” which holds up poorly. But in the greater world of wonky, electronic hip-hop with high-velocity verbosity, the veteran Busdriver, who’s been around the block a few times, rides up front and sits tall. “Perfect Hair” showcases classic Busdriver confidence in delivering meanders, musings, multisyllabic rhymes and some sung melodies, all atop unorthodox beats. He ends “Perfect Hair” with “Colonize the Moon,” which is as much an ambition as it is a declaration.