When L.A.’s Busdriver performs his distinctive Dadaist hip-hop live, you can’t help but notice how nervous he looks up there. But the word “nervous” both underestimates Regan John Farquhar’s abilities and undersells just how unhinged and combustible his act is. Cardiganed and bespectacled like an assistant professor, the MC’s eyes tend to focus only on the upper left and right corners of the venue or on nothing at all. His left arm, which flails wildly to his syncopated flow, seems less consciously controlled and more demonically possessed. When he delivers an aside to the audience, it seems more addressed to a fictive crowd of disapproving cardboard cutouts than the actual head-bobbers in front of him. In short, he’s extremely self-conscious, but his lack of comfort generates a performance that feels visceral, authentic and unmannered.
That jittery self-consciousness is precisely the point of departure on Busdriver’s latest LP, Beaus$Eros, a kaleidoscopic bad/good trip of a record that deals with failed relationships, unmet goals and general self-loathing. Despite the subject matter, it’s an often upbeat and fun listen, with Busdriver’s tongue-in-cheekiness being a primary line of emotional defense. He sings almost as much as he raps here, often intentionally straining his voice or putting on a strange, unplaceable accent for some shockingly sincere confessions. In doing so, lines like “I’m more than a boyfriend/I’m a mistake to learn from,” which might sound precious or whiny on an emo acoustic ballad, come off as honest and moving. A major strength of the album is that its emotions are both plainly on display and cleverly disguised. We never feel like we have to RSVP to a pity party.
Speaking of departures, the album is unmistakably Busdriver, yet it sounds almost nothing like his previous work. Much of this is due to the production, single-handedly tackled by the Belgian Loden. The beats are incredibly heterogeneous, from song to song and within tracks, the instrumentation lush and varied. Loden draws a lot of offbeat rhythmic influence from Busdriver’s older collaborators, stalwarts of the L.A. beat scene like Daedelus and Daddy Kev, while simultaneously offering bold tastes of IDM, synth-pop and reggae. “Feelings” sounds like demented space-jazz, while “Picking Band Names” sounds co-produced by Panda Bear. As for the MC, Busdriver previously made a name for himself with a syllable-per-second rate that might put Twista to shame. While often deliriously entertaining (see “Imaginary Places”) the quickness did tend to overwhelm certain tracks, and here we see him hold his own with a saner pace and even as a singer.
Beaus$Eros is being marketed as “post-hip-hop,” presumably because Busdriver sings and it’s not Auto-Tuned. That label is pretty dramatic and pretentious (we’re all tired of the “post-” construction), but it does speak to the creativity here. Rather than inventing a genre or reinventing the 808-drum, Busdriver floats effortlessly over and between genre categories, the way a mature artist should. Not every song/experiment sticks, but there’s enough sheer courage and musical inventiveness to merit back-to-back listens (and alienate swaths of hip-hop purists).