The other day I stepped out of my reviewer’s lair to absorb what might be the last sun rays of the season. Always keen to have the appropriate soundtrack with me, I had DJ Applesauce & DJ Pancakes’ charming “In the Sunshine” mixtape in the headset. As I charged my solar cells for darker days, I half-consciously took notice of some Digable Planets track I had long forgotten. The CD was over but my walk in the sunshine wasn’t, and looking to keep the flow, I inserted another CD, which happened to be Eddie Haskill’s “The College Graduate.” By track six I witnessed guest rapper Ajent O reminisce about “them formative years / when commercial rap got the gun clap and you performed for your peers.” It rang a bell, faintly but distinctly. And while Eddie Haskill’s CD kept playing, I remembered that Digable Planets track I had heard but minutes before, and that it contained a line very similar to the one that had just caught my attention. When it came time to write a review of “The College Graduate,” I went back to check, and there it was: “Shitty-ass rap need a firm gun clap,” as said by Butterfly on “Dedication.”
What’s the point, you may ask. The point is that no matter how far removed from what you define as hip-hop a certain rap song may seem, it’s still part of the hip-hop universe. It’s part of an ever-expanding set of coordinates held together by citations. That artists copy what other artists create is not a particularly new phenomenon, in the arts, everything from a subtle influence to blatant plagiarism is common practice. It’s the multi-level referencing that makes hip-hop so unique. Whether through samples, producers, guest rappers, quotes, or plain lyrical references, thousands of rap songs are connected with each other, creating a cosmos of cross-referencing content. This can be a frustrating experience for neophytes, who after taking a liking to rap have to find out that rappers have a habit of referencing other rappers, who in turn reference other rappers, who in turn… Obviously, you can enjoy any particular hip-hop record without being familiar with this kind of context, but you won’t be able to ignore its existence onced you get involved beyond copping the year’s chart-topping releases. On the other hand, the sheer amount of signs and pointers makes it a lot easier to explore the matrix known as hip-hop.
Hip-Hop may be interdependent, but it’s not independent. It’s a parallel universe that at certain points interlocks with reality. That’s why Eddie Haskill’s “The College Graduate” is not only an obvious nod to Kanye West’s bestselling “The College Dropout” album, it also describes the 24 year old’s current educational status. He wasn’t the only smart-ass to accept West’s invitation, as a web search reveals that at least two rappers (Tara Chase and Naledge) currently have a mixtape called “The College Graduate” out. But with his professionally produced and packaged album he’s very likely the one who’s the most serious about his status as a college grad. Coming from Eddie Haskill, “The College Graduate” is not simply an opportunistic album title, it’s the logical progression for a rapper who once claimed: “This microphone I’m rockin’ it / finished undergrad, now master, second step to a doctorate / so in the future when it’s Dr. Haskill / I’ll have to have my credentials plaqued for all you hatin’ assholes.” Unlike Kanye West, Eddie Haskill has probably always been a proud collegian. Who apparently still had the time to chase after his rap dreams. But now that he “went from bachelor to masters naturally,” playtime is over. After three CD’s released during college, his fourth full-length marks Eddie Haskill’s arrival in working life, both in terms of his 9 to 5 and of his rap career. And compared to 2003’s “A Beautiful Rhyme,” the “proud supporter and contributor since 1988” steps his game up in every aspect.
On the production end, “The College Graduate” boasts a varied but cohesive sound that, while clearly non-commercial, is on par with any indie release. The Discolobos take the lead with their layered production. They barge through the door with “Executive Summary,” which builds up rather inconspiciously with some somber strings, before erupting with a sequence of symphonic breaks that cleverly intensify the suspense in Haskill’s biographical account. “Masked Man” pursues the orchestral approach with a dramatic, determined string loop over which Haskill flows extremely comfortably, occasionally switching up his perpetual forward flow. “Human Disappearing Act” is a hypnotic, originally timed combination of rolling bass, tight drum claps and melodically echoing guitar licks. “Interviewee” thumps optimistically, while “Changes” strolls along leisurely yet seriously. Three more tracks round off the Discolobos experience, proving that relying on a limited number of producers can pay off in the end. DJ Daringer and Tone Atlas join the line-up with slighty more traditional contributions, the former adding cuts across the album.
Lyrically, Eddie Haskill is as self-absorbed as any other rapper. Even when he goes on a wordplay workout (“Proverbial Speaking”), he can’t stop talking about himself. Pair that with the fact that he hasn’t learned yet to let the music speak for itself and uses up as much airtime as available, and there’s potential for dissatisfaction. There’s a pleasant lilt to his delivery (reminiscent of a young Special Ed – no pun intended), but at times it’s hard to make out every detail of his melodic murmur. After four self-released albums and a fair share of humbling experiences, Eddie Haskill’s self-examination has reached a level many professionals could envy him for. But just like there can be a lack of self-awareness, there can be too much of it, and a rapper continously reflecting on how he has evolved can be as annoying as a rapper who simply refuses to evolve.
“The College Graduate” requires repeated listens, and even then you probably won’t be able to relate completely, because this album is about Garrett Manhart, artistically known as Eddie Haskill, college graduate and aspiring rapper, engaged in a balancing act between paying back his student loan and promoting himself with “songs that don’t try to hype the crowd with a catchphrase,” feeling confident one minute (“Lame raps are a thing of the past / you’re about to hear a whole disc of me bringin’ the wrath”), insecure the next (“I’m the first to admit faults and point out my flaws / I’m a mediocre rapper who rarely gets applause”), moving from Buffalo to New York and back, where he’s “one of the scene’s baddest / with no chance to ever reach a major league status.”
It’s only natural that Eddie Haskill feels somewhat isolated. That he has a song named “Masked Man,” which name-drops hip-hop’s most famous mask-bearers, Ghostface Killah and MF Doom. But the beauty of hip-hop is that he can still feel part of a greater whole, even if he defines himself as an outsider. With just one rhyme Eddie Haskill can establish a link between himself and Jay-Z: “Me and Jay-Z call different worlds our home / shit, I got 99 problems with girls alone.” It’s a link most of you wouldn’t know about if it wasn’t for this review, it’s a link Jay-Z certainly doesn’t know or care about, and it’s a link that’s extremely insignificant in the big scheme of things, plus it’s a link that denies that any such link might exist. Nevertheless, it’s there. Believe it or not, these cross-references make hip-hop what it is, and they are prone to make us listen closely and look at things from different angles. Like they made me wonder if “shitty-ass rap” and “commercial rap” are and were one and the same. But that’s another story.
If all this is too abstract for you, rest assured that Eddie Haskill isn’t really that different from any other rapper. But at the same time he’s unique enough to proudly claim a spot for himself and only himself – as an individual who after a number of years of higher learning and after several albums has found a realistic outlook on life yet still hasn’t forgotten to dream. If you always wanted to know how exactly that feels, then “The College Graduate” offers some valuable insight. If you’re in that situation yourself, then songs like “Interviewee” and “Changes” might just provide the soundtrack to your life.