The Midwest built America; the Midwest was abandoned by America. It is a region vast in geopolitical scope, from the heavy industrialised North Shore, where Cleveland and Toledo, Detroit and Gary and Chicago and Milwaukee struggle, thrive, die and kill along the banks of the Great Lakes, to the sweeping plains and rolling farmlands of Iowa and Kansas and the badlands of the Dakotas. It is in the same breath described as the heartland of America, the most average representation of the nation, a distillation, if you would, of apple pies and Harley-Davidsons and quarterbacks fucking cheerleaders, and the savage, rundown Rust Belt, where the glistening, heat tempered Steel Cities now exsanguinate, leaving little more than the empty shells of houses and handguns along the sides of the broken-down streets. The nation travels through here; cars, trains and planes consistently routed through Chicago, Queen of the Great Lakes, a regionally dominant and internationally prominent city that grew fat in the abattoir, hog butcherer to the world, now stuck between that slaughterhouse past and the White City future it so desperately craves, with countless lives lost to that long, painful transition.
It is of little wonder that from so complicated and industrious a region would rise art, of which rap music is perhaps the grandest. Born in the Great Migration, bolstered by Chicago, Detroit and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and tempered by the fall of steel and the rise of violence in the ’60s and ’70s, Midwestern rap is traditionally associated with dense wordplay, intricate lyricism and heavy subject matter, ranging from the highly political to the autobiographical, from a region where the backpack rapper reigns supreme. A variety of sounds flourish aside from the backpacker, however, notably the acid rap and horror tinged styles of Detroit and Cleveland and the walking dead, eyes wide, blunt violence of Chicago drill music.
Within this cultural and artistic milieu resides P.O.S., a man of backpack-dominant Minneapolis, a Doomtree founder, signed to famed indie label Rhymesayers but lacking in the pretension and poor beat selection so many seem to associate that scene with; P.O.S. is more El-P than Slug, more musician than lyricist, and it is due to his ability to graft socially conscious and intelligent bars with a focus on flow and timbre that most “underground” rappers lack that We Don’t Even Live Here is so successful where others fail.
That is not to say that this is not Caulfield rap, reflective, intellectual, and laced through with messages both political and personal, including references to “class war hooligans” and “bricks to occupy my backpack”, ruminations on black culture and growing up in Minnesota and the healthy amount of ego that anyone willing to put words to wax must possess before writing down their first line; it is the fact that this rap is delivered without a preacher’s collar or a schoolboy blazer, stripped bare of pontification or mewling by the sincerity one can hear in P.O.S.’s tone – that is what makes it remarkable. It takes a special kind of voice to make old hats new again, and P.O.S.’s is clean and raw, dangerously numbing and violent, capable of a conversational pace or tearing through raps in an accelerated manner, often adding his own guttural emphasis to give them the syncopated, sing-song rhythm of Motown or Cleveland, with a sincere emotional heft to the heavier lyrics.
It is in the beats that We Don’t Even Live Here truly shines, an eclectic array of sounds – there is none of the repetitive, monotonous stomping fatigue one may find on, say, a drill album, for example – befitting a musician who is also a member of noise rock act Marijuana Deathsquads. Album opener ‘Bumper’ throws these sounds directly into the listener’s face, with driving punk rock drums percolating beneath the vocals and splattering into little epileptic fits that eventually even out into a drawling, nod-inducing break down, while a jagged little melody squirms above the roiling boil below it. A similar earworm resides on ‘Fuck Your Stuff,’ a windswept, flittering synth line that provides the narrative thread to a juxtaposition of a song, intelligent crew music with a soul-infused trap sound, a strange brew that seems like not only the perfect place to name drop Christopher Hitchens while threatening to scuff someone’s Nikes, but the only place. Late cut line “we genuinely believe that all your shit is fake” is the kind of trite call to arms that would sound tired in any other’s hands: here, the lack of banality is stunning.
A pop cabaret hook straight out of the Dungeon Family powers ‘Where We Stand,’ and it is such a welcome revival of a unique sound that even an appearance by Justin Vernon’s melancholic sensibilities cannot completely snow out the vibe; to Vernon’s credit, he rises to the occasion here, as he did on ‘Monster,’ and his addition truly does add to the song, causing the entire composition to fall like a leaf before spiralling back upwards into a gloriously swaggering, slightly syrupy shade of its former self. Astronautalis provides the second best guest appearance of the album on ‘Wanted/Wasted’, providing a wiry twang and pointed levity.
‘They Can’t Come’ has a basement party bounce to it, and begins We Don’t Even Live Here’s descent into darkness, setting the table for the transitionary ‘Lockpicks, Knives, Bricks and Bats’, an aptly named track that finds P.O.S. opening with a subversive danger atop minimal darkness, before moving into sharper anger accentuated by increased instrumentation and finally climaxing, with the beat, into an ending where both rapper and track bludgeon the listener. ‘Arrow To The Action – Fire In the Hole’ is the ignition switch, building quickly and setting the tone for the rest of the album. Next comes the aggressive, elephant crunch of ‘Get Down’ and ‘All of It,’ wherein electropop snorts a fat line of ketamine and is then beaten in a snow covered back alley with brass knuckles and vintage Timberlands. Most vicious of all is the closer, the deceptively benignly named ‘Piano Hits.’ Here, Marijuana Deathsquads’ Isaac Gale screams through the tumult, a howling, blood red will o’ the wisp raging in the background, more instrument than man. We Don’t Even Live Here loses its way in these tracks, arresting as they are, predominantly because anger is so strong and easily-expressed an emotion; the depth, breadth and disparateness of the first six cuts makes what follows them seem gauche by comparison.
Slightly disappointing deviation aside, P.O.S. effectively whipsaws whatever trepidations that limped finish inspires with sincere, visceral and even humorous lyrics combined with an excellent variety of sounds and textures. The result is an album that is both challenging and approachable, a contradiction by a musician from a land fraught with them.
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