In every art form, artists are part of a rolling time continuum—one that makes room for new additions to the canon right next to the preexisting contributions. Basquiat knew that releasing a piece of work meant automatically allowing his art to be compared to Van Gogh. That’s the responsibility that any artist accepts. We see it with Eminem naming his album Marshall Mathers LP 2, and we see it with Action Bronson and his new project, Blue Chips 2.
When Blue Chips dropped last year, the hip-hop world at large was officially introduced to the burly, Albanian red-bearded rapper and his lanky, loop-crazy producer, Party Supplies. It stands as Bronson’s magnum opus—a sprawling, one-take fiesta that was completed in a matter of days. It became the go-to project to refer to newbies for an initiation in all things Bronsalini. It was one of the best albums of 2012. Action has been striving to top it ever since.
“State your business ‘cause I’m busy tanning naked” is how we meet Bronson at the start of the new record. He’s gotten his (metaphorical) weight up a bit since Rare Chandeliers, starting his own restaurant series on Vice’s website and releasing the Saaab Stories EP with Harry Fraud to digital retailers. He explained that his last release was made with the sole intention of performing it live, thus excusing the somewhat dumbed down lyricism that has been replaced with vibrant imagery on Blue Chips 2.
“My shorty keep it real, take a shit out the car window/hide the money in a Nintendo” is just a taste of the visceral detail that Action depicts, while lines like “The kid caught herpes from the Rabbi/Yacob from 165 with the bad eye” showcase his ability to breath life into the characters that he creates. If only he could expand those brief vignettes into fully fleshed out stories like he did on the first Blue Chips.
On that project, storylines like “Thug Love Story 2012” depict a runaway relationship with enough coarse detail to make you feel Bronson’s pain, and “Hookers At The Point” finds Bronson flexing his authorial prowess by inhabiting three different characters over three respective verses. It’s this ability to traverse personalities and illustrate a person’s multi-dimensionality that Blue Chips 2 lacks. We’ve heard him speak of depression and loneliness back on the epic “9-24-11,” but the song’s new cousin “9-24-13” only distantly mentions a previous partner of Bronson who then cheated on him, and now only comes around for money. It’s the thread of a woeful tale that is vaguely hinted at in the first verse before the rest of the song trails off. The story-driven records from the first Blue Chips make for memorable music; song after song of impressionistic observations and funny one-liners does not.
It’s hard to deny that Blue Chips 2 is more than just a solid listen. Bronsalino’s reputation precedes him, and there’s a unique taste to the former chef’s style that can’t be found anywhere else in current rap music. His new project doesn’t cease to deliver the usual suspects—drugs stashed in body crevices, foods with exotic names, yacht rock and old soul samples—but it does lack some of the stunning eccentricity that the first one had. “Pouches of Tuna” (from Blue Chips) opened with iconic stamps on the earth like “scriptures of my body out in Nagano.” Blue Chips 2 starts with “Silverado,” a repackaged verse from Bronson’s BET Backroom freestyle in 2012.
As one of the most compelling MCs out right now, Bronson is in a league of his own (only Willie The Kid and Roc Marciano rock similar phrase-heavy styles). The stone-faced hilarity in the gravity of his delivery probably borrows from his gracious physical build, and the velvet-vivid realism packed into his rhymes translates into snapshots from a Stanley Kubrick film: simple yet maximal. He smokes wax until he’s got down syndrome, he’s got his hand up a girl’s ass like a Muppet, and “he nutted in like three strokes/shit…now that’s no way to rep the East Coast!” He’s even the last rapper to drop “batty boys” in a rhyme (since DOOM). The slanguage is tremendous.
But the shtick is getting a little old. Being white and a perceived novelty act, Bronson needs to prove his weight (no pun) with pure skill and songwriting if he wants to get even bigger. There’s little of the creativity from his past here, aside from the beatjacking “Contemporary Man” and flashes of brutal honesty beneath the surface (“The shit is pure, have you grinding your teeth/see a smile on ya face but you’re dying underneath” from “In The City”). It’s the juxtaposition of doing drugs and avoiding reality—that subtle but ugly link between escapism and truth—that Bronson can illustrate so well, but chooses not to. It’s the kind of quirk that he has to fully develop if he wants to rank amongst the elite MCs.
Behind the boards, Party Supplies is hands-down one of the illest, most under-utilized producers out, flipping classics by Phil Collins, Tracy Chapman, and The Champs for irresistibly funky beats from top to bottom. Some of the beats linger in a way that offsets the raw, makeshift one-take aesthetic of the original Blue Chips, and back-to-back updates of Kno and J-Swift beats are fun but ultimately dull in the shadows of the tape’s outstanding production. There’s almost a looming sense of necessary development for Bronson that’s evident in the out-of-place but nonetheless dope “In The City,” which features vocalist Jeff Woods and lands somewhere between indie rock and Bulletproof Wizardry. Hopefully PS starts working with more rappers—the joint he did with Danny Brown was beyond stupid.
At least four of the songs on here are pretty old, and it’s too bad that they didn’t throw the semi-rare “Action” on as well, but all of the older songs (“It’s Me”, “Contemporary Man”, “Midget Cough”, and “Twin Peugots”) shine. Blue Chips 2 ends with a smoky, mellow trinity of songs; “Amadu Diablo”, “In The City”, and “Adore You” float like wisps of burning Dutches, beautifully sedative. The sun sets on a full day of adventure with the Brooklyn producer and the Queens-bred rapper, and when it’s over it feels like you just finished one of those children’s books about Bobby’s Day At The Zoo, only a bit more X-rated.
To put it in perspective, saying that the sequel to Blue Chips lacks the luster of the first is like saying that your entrée is better than your appetizer at Gramercy Tavern. The first release set the bar incredibly high, and there’s no way to downplay Bronson’s finesse on the mic the second time around. Son is one of the nicest MCs in today’s rap game, but he could be a superstar if he reined in the colorful commentary and started portraying the psyches of different characters. He even hopes to work with Carlos Santana in the future, but if he wants to reach that next level, he’ll have to add a layer to his music that lets people dive deeper. —Max Weinstein