As a former gourmet chef of Albanian and Jewish descent who raps over a Tracy Chapman guitar riff at most of his shows, Action Bronson has always been a unique presence in hip-hop. Never has this been more pronounced, though, than at last week’s South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Despite the chaos that goes along with an estimated 2,300 rappers, bands and artists converging in a city with less than 900,000 residents, SXSW isn’t quite the free-for-all, indie-championing event that it advertises itself as. Business cards are exchanged more freely than mixtapes, branding sometimes outweighs genuine enthusiasm for music, and stages owned by major corporations like Spotify, Samsung and Monster Energy now compete for space with local venues.
In town for the week, Bronson spent most of his time going against the grain, as is his habit. He named his headlining concert after his new album, not a brand; met interviewers in his hotel room, not the lobby; and performed for 40 minutes, not the 20 that’s standard for SXSW rap showcases. An unorthodox listening party for Mr. Wonderful was held on a double-decker bus, and in addition to lighting up a large blunt and passing it to anyone who cared to join him, he refused to pose for a photo while holding a branded souvenir from the bus company. He treated fans to free “cowboy poutine” from a food truck, and then posed for pictures with absolutely anyone who asked (even obliging to do a rap squat with one dude). Just a few yards away, a security guard stiff-armed a girl who tried to do the same with a former Bronson collaborator, RiFF RAFF, who apparently doesn’t practice what his Lil B-esque Twitter presence seems to preach. The same spontaneity, fierce independence and charm that abounds from Bronsolino’s music was put on display in Texas, as he flew by the seat of his “very loose” pants all week.
Having honed his inimitable personal style for the past five years, the Queens native has now attracted the attention of his city’s biggest rap fixtures, even though that never seemed like his goal. Funkmaster Flex, Peter Rosenberg and Elliott Wilson all flanked him at various moments at SXSW, with Flex and Rosenberg introducing him before he closed out his “South By South Wonderful” showcase. Headbanging, sweating and tirelessly rapping his way through a set dominated by cuts from his new album, Bronson acted like he was on a victory lap. One listen to Mr. Wonderful is enough to realize that it’s well-deserved.
Despite his freewheeling vibe, Bronson approaches his lyrics like a screenwriter, noting details both minuscule and integral to the story at hand. “You gotta sit yourself in that scene,” he said while explaining the concept of a track from the album’s three-song suite, as if each individual one was a different theater in the cineplex that is Mr. Wonderful. It’s almost like he treats his life as a location scout for all of his music, no matter the banality of the situation. A guy comes up to Bronson on the street asking for money, he gives him twenty bucks, the man sings “a couple songs,” and a situation that most New Yorkers would brush aside ends up leading to an impromptu interlude on the album, recorded on the street in front of Lower East Side institution Katz’s Delicatessen, no less. He’s sipping an exotic beverage while visiting a Queens bullpen with some friends, and so he includes a line about that very same mango lassi in the first minute of his album. There are no holds barred, no subject too inane or grimey (there are two references to human feces in the album’s first half, three if you count a jenkem name-drop). Through Bronson’s eyes, everything is a florid anecdote waiting to happen. It can be as simple as recounting the first time he masturbated (“it was a Penthouse”), or as luxe as being “laid in the Galapagos, eating tacos, higher than an opera note.” When asked if the latter had actually happened, he chuckled and replied, “No, but I’ve been very high, I’ve eaten tacos, and I watch National Geographic about the Galapagos Islands and the abundance of of different types of wildlife they have there. I could pretty much give you a summary on the Galapagos.”
Even if you’ve been paying attention since 2011’s Dr. Lecter, Mr. Wonderful sounds unfamiliar at moments. Whereas tracks often used to be driven by grainy, obscure samples discovered on YouTube (especially when the ever-adventurous Party Supplies was behind the boards), they’re now fleshed out into full-band exercises recorded on vintage analog equipment. The one remaining YouTube rip (of a “Godly native chant,” in Bronsolino’s words) shows up on “Easy Rider” and sounds more lush than ever, concluding with a live guitar solo. “That’s my life. My life ends on a guitar solo,” he says with a cinematic air. Interludes are more ambitious, instrumentals are more liberated and nuanced, and a big-budget rock influence pervades almost every track. He agreed with that statement to a degree, but with a caveat: “I make whatever music I rap on, rap.” That being said, he confessed to “love underground, very foreign psychedelic rock,” noting that he had a lot of “Thai pop, Thai soul and Vietnamese fuckin’ war songs” in his collection. “I got all kinds of wild shit, but I appreciate the ‘80s and the hair bands and all that. I think about Guns N’ Roses a lot.” That’s affirmed on “Easy Rider” when he references a scene from the band’s “November Rain” music video: “Feeling like Slash in front of the chapel/I’m leaned back with the Les Paul.”
The moment where these adventurous tendencies are most noticeable is on “City Boy Blues,” a track featuring zero rapping and sounding closer to a prog rock band covering a blues standard than any sort of hip-hop. This is the album’s best example of Bronson’s refusal to give a fuck about others’ opinions or being trendy— “This is not a thing where you have to be confined by what people think,” he says, referring to the rap genre as a whole. After remarking that he doesn’t understand rappers who chase current trends, he says, “Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m gonna do my art, ‘cause that’s who I am.”
The only opinions and interpretations that seem to matter to him are his own. He’s very fond of explaining the way he visualizes his music, pausing the listening session before Mr. Wonderful’s second track to get down on one knee, put a fist to his forehead, and explain: “I want you to picture ‘Terminator,’ where he comes down to Earth naked, like this.” I relay him someone else’s interpretation of the outro to album track “The Passage” (it’s like the pope entering a stadium), and he says, straight up, “I don’t like when other people describe my shit.” Instead, he offers an even more vivid picture of the scene:
“That song, you think of it being 1977, at some crazy festival. I come on man, I just rock for 45 to an hour. We’re cooling down, we give you that last fuckin’ bit of instrumental lead up to the fuckin’ song of all songs. They tell you, ‘Sit down please, and now here’s the word from God.’”
The recent “documentary” released ahead of Mr. Wonderful also finds Bronson envisioning himself as some sort of deity, but this display of ego is offset by embarrassing scenes of him passed out on a couch and struggling while seated on a toilet (yet another time that shitting comes into play). This interplay between arrogance, self-deprecating humor and grossness has always been central to his rapping style, and although that hasn’t changed much, things get more grandiose on the musical end. He’s always sounded right at home over the dusty boom bap of his mixtapes, but his punchlines and imagery seemed to jump off the page, somewhat overshadowing all but the zaniest beats. The lyrics still pop on Mr. Wonderful, but they’re matched by instrumental flourishes, making it more of a back-and-forth between the man and the music, rather than monologues over entertaining-but-stagnant loops. Many familiar faces are back behind the boards (The Alchemist, Statik Selektah, Party Supplies), but as previously mentioned, more live instrumentation is deployed, with virtuosic performances coming from Party (real name Justin Nealis), his bandmate Sean Mahon, keyboard wiz Cas Weinbren and others. This acts to make the rock influence more legit (walking the walk, as it were), with Bronson saying that he’s always wished he could play instruments, and thus calling upon talented friends who could help him realize his vision.
It’s a testament to his self-awareness that he didn’t attempt making a project this ambitious and psychedelic until he had the means to do it justice. In all of his moves, Bronson seems to value what he calls “organic fate” over achieving lofty goals. Lucky for him, big things really just fell into place on Mr. Wonderful. Collaborations with Mark Ronson and Noah “40” Shebib materialized out of thin air, with Bronson shrugging and explaining, “They reached out, and I don’t know, we just made it happen.” Ronson originally recruited Bronson for his album, and when that didn’t pan out, they turned their attention to Mr. Wonderful. “We couldn’t create anything the first four days,” he says, “and we were about to leave. That night, [Ronson] plays ‘Baby Blue’ for me, and the next day everything is laid and shit. I extended my trip.” The story of how Chance The Rapper ended up on the track is even more coincidental:
“It’s a funny thing, it was a finished song, and I had an eight bar verse at the end. I had just left London, and Chance came to London two days after. He worked with Ronson for a little bit, Ronson played him that song, [and he said] ‘I have to get on that.’ They just sent me the song with his verse on it-- I was like, ‘Let’s go.’”
The most unlikely contributor on “Baby Blue,” though, is former BBC Radio One DJ Zane Lowe, who helped Bronson compose the hook and vocal harmony on the track. Born out of a “powwow” they had in the studio, Lowe’s uncredited contribution still has Bronson reeling: “I don’t know if he’s ever done anything like it, but he did a hell of a job on this one.” The genuine enthusiasm and creative collaboration that led to the final version of “Baby Blue” almost seems more important to Bronson than the actual product of those sessions. He explains how he initially felt like him and Ronson were too focused on impressing each other to spark a true collaborative spirit, and were it not for that one track, he would’ve been fine without a Ronson production credit on Mr. Wonderful. As it turns out, he ended up getting two, with the second coming on album opener “Brand New Car,” another song that hinged on an improbable co-sign. Its jaunty piano line and hook are both lifted from Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar,” and not only did the veteran singer-songwriter clear the sample, but he responded to Bronson’s request with an “excited” handwritten note. Again, although Bronson was over the moon about clearing a sample with a personal hero who rarely “grants people shit like that,” he wasn’t banking on it: “Even if he said ‘no,’ that’s still my man.” By rolling with the punches, Bronson only accentuates his affable personality, pulling others into his orbit with an infectious enthusiasm for music.
One of the most charming moments on Bronson’s major label debut comes on “Galactic Love,” when he intersperses his verses with clips from a phone conversation he had with his mother while she watched the BET Awards. Unlike the overwrought conversations with family members that pop up on Big Sean’s recent Dark Sky Paradise, this one feels candid and honest, as Bronson was in the booth when he got the call, and his mom had no idea she was being recorded. “I just picked up the phone and let my mother go… She’s very raw,” he says, smiling to himself. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, it seems, as an unfiltered, “anything goes” approach is probably the most enjoyable facet of Mr. Wonderful.
Probably the only rap album that will have a “Lynyrd Skynyrd piano solo” (his words) on it this year, Action Bronson’s new album is his first project that sees his artistic vision fully realized. It’s as wild a ride as the double-decker bus tour that had us both ducking tree branches, and as likeable and irreverent as the man who made it. Why is Bronson out here acting crazy, driving Harleys into sunsets and rocking an all-green mink coat? Because, with Mr. Wonderful marking a definite artistic progression, he damn well deserves to.