I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: age is one of the most defining factors in hip-hop. Despite being a newcomer (to a certain extent), Action Bronson is ten years older than the acts he usually associates with. This manifests in a sound that is draws heavily from rock and roll, slightly outdated references, and a complete aversion to the “bling era” of hip-hop. While this could be detrimental to many rappers, Action Bronson has capitalized on it and successfully garnered a loyal underground following. His debut album, Mr. Wonderful, sees the 300+ pound man attempting to make his biggest statement yet.
The fact that this is Action Bronson’s debut album is pivotal in trying to decipher this project. Bronson has never been one to pander to his listeners, but he seems to have broken that rule with his debut album. Throughout the album, he awkwardly straddles the line between mainstream accessibility and crafting his own songs. In fact, this divide can be seen quite clearly between the first and second half of the record.
Mr. Wonderful’s beginning is Action Bronson’s strongest statements to date. The first five tracks feature him and his trademarked rapping/yelling over beats that throw back to the 90’s New York sound. Lines like “I’m by the bar looking Swedish in the trench coat: stupid / The only one drinkin’ mango lassi in the bullpen” is everything that made Action Bronson the artist that he is today. Lines like these continue to be sprayed throughout the first half of the record, climaxing with the outlandish “Actin’ Crazy.” At first impression, Action sees no compromise between his character and the mainstream appeal. Whether you like the trap or not doesn’t matter to Action Bronson.
Unfortunately, this brazen declaration of artistry to the mainstream doesn’t continue for the rest of the album. After “Actin’ Crazy” comes two suites. These two suites are intended for Action to flex his artistic muscles and display some thematic writing. Instead, the experiments rub off in a slightly weird way. The first of the two suites is a mini-musical. This “musical” showcases Action Bronson and his love for blues and rock and roll. He turns off his high-pitched delivery and switches to a heavy flow and an heavier reliance on singing. While this mini-musical is musically thematic, Bronson fails to make himself memorable. It’s no doubt that he intended for the music to be the focus, but in doing so it feels like we have lost his personality. At the album’s seventy-five percent mark, you start to wonder who you’re listening to.
The second of the suites is only slightly better than the first. It starts off with a solemn “Galactic Love,” and an even more somber intro with “The Passage.” Both tracks slide seamlessly into one another and build up to the finale of the album, “Easy Rider.” It’s refreshing to hear Bronson explore this side of him. However, his fatigue is so apparent throughout this suite that you find yourself just anticipating “Easy Rider.”
After listening to Mr. Wonderful, there’s no doubt that Action Bronson is a man who has grown up listening to rock and roll. Most artists inadvertently draw their influences from what they listened to in their teenage years. Unlike other young rappers, Bronson’s teenage years were apparently spent listening to Elton John, Zeppelin, and other classic rock. It’s quite impressive that he has managed to make rock influenced hip-hop sound this good. It doesn’t rub off as cheesy in the slightest. However, it doesn’t sound modern at all. Of course, this is what Action Bronson intended it to be. It just happens that his fans were looking for something else.
This album comes at the end of a busy week for hip-hop. Kendrick has defined himself as the artsy, John Coltrane of hip-hop. Earl has defined himself somewhat as the Elliot Smith. With Mr. Wonderful, Action Bronson has defined himself as the Elton John of rap. This experimentation exposes both the best and the worst of Action Bronson’s career, so it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from this.