Cleen represents Lancaster, California, a place he calls “a little sandbox outside L.A.” Cleen describes Lancaster as a place that does not really appreciate hip-hop. Growing up, his classmates didn’t understand why he liked rap. His family didn’t understand why he liked rap. To this day he’s constantly dealing with people who think hip-hop, and his involvement in it, is a joke.
After listening to this CD again and again and again I must say: Clean is no goddamn joke. This dude is the truth. His punchlines are funny, but he is not a comedy rapper. He’s harshly introspective, but he’s not an “emo” rapper. He raps about the “golden era” a lot, but he’s not an elitist name-dropper. His voice is clear and his flow articulate, but he does not fall into the backwards-ass racism of white MC’s overdoing their whiteness. He is not trying to be anyone else but himself, and he’s the best thing I’ve heard in a while.
The beats on this affair are held down by a variety of producers (including Cleen himself), but somehow (maybe by accident, maybe by Cleen’s selective shrewdness) maintain a similar feel. The producers are all about sampling, and doing it from strange sources. In that way, it’s a loop-and-drum-program type of feel, which is boring if not done tastefully. If anything, the producers on this CD are even more unknown than Cleen, making the quality of their output all the more surprising. It’s tight that even though everyone involved is an unknown, Cleen’s not on some mixtape shit (not that there’s anything wrong with that). He’s trying to make an album, a cohesive listening experience.
The best way to give you an idea what this album is all about is to explain a few songs. I’ll explain three.
“Fork in the Road” features production by Offbeat. He samples Yo-Yo Ma from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and puts it over a distorted, BOOMING drum loop that moves fast and demands to be ridden by a flow master. The song, like all Cleen’s songs, has a concept, an idea, a theme. This song is about whether or not, if an MC is afforded the opportunity, he/she will decide to get signed and blow up. Cleen says “the lifestyle sure is tempting, but to get it you gotta sell your soul.” Check out his humor:
Where your maid in red
Lingerie gives you head everyday in bed
It’s not because you’re good lookin’
You just keep bringin’ home the bacon, and she’ll keep cookin’ it”
In this song, an underground cat gets a big record deal, starts living the life, and then has to make an album. He used to draw creative inspiration from his life, but he’s changed so much and become so hollow that he’s got a bad case of writer’s block. His label becomes frustrated because he’s not making songs; they want to know where their money is going. His underground fans disown him for chasing cash. The mainstream cats that recently found out about him say he’s too lyrical to top the pop charts. In the end, the protagonist of the song is just fucked. Sound like a story you’ve heard before? Yes, indeed. The point of the song? Cleen says, “I’m saying it’s a bitch what rappin’ can be/ I just hope I’m prepared if it happens to me.” I haven’t heard a better song on this topic since that Blackalicious jam off “A2G.”
“She Came with the Frame” is a lesson in self-deprecation that would make even Woody Allen proud. Bookworm handles the beat, a producer Cleen acknowledges he’s never met. It’s a slow burner; a muted trumpet, shimmering ride cymbal and smooth keys provide the kind of calm, collected, yet wistful backdrop that really makes Cleen’s lyrics pop. The song is, among other things, an admission of sexual frustration.
“Has it come down to this?
Can’t Mr. Cleen go find himself a Miss?
The girls in my comfort zone have nothing wrong with their descriptions
This is my problem, I don’t have issues
I got the whole subscription”
That last line had even my dad taking notice. Clever indeed. As the song goes on, Cleen’s pathetic love-life reaches a new low as he peruses the picture frame aisles at K-Mart and Target, fantasizing about the girls in the stock photographs. Later, when his friends come over to his house, they pick up a picture and ask him, “Hey Cleen, who’s this? Is it your girl?” “Nah,” he responds, “she came with the frame.” If it wasn’t so funny and a little bit sad, it’d be creepy. But it’s not. It’s genius.
“Sleepy Follow/Diabetes Generation” is entirely produced by Cleen, and is a story song unlike any I’ve heard before. The song is divided into two acts with two beats and two types of flow. Act one has Cleen driving home from a rap show at two in the morning, almost falling asleep at the wheel, justifying the concert and the money it cost even though he has to wake up for work at six.
“My friends think I’m nuts, but if I can afford the ticket
And I’m free that night, I don’t want to just stay home and kick it
This is hip-hop, you skip your favorite rapper’s show and he could get shot
Then his last show really was his last show, and you had a chance to go
See, it’s the shows that keep me motivated
I know a lot of dope MC’s that lost their inspiration and their flows just faded
But that won’t happen to me, â€˜cause if I start to bust wack
I’ll just retire from rappin’ and grow a handlebar mustache”
As the sleepy beat continues, he decides that he needs to pull over and get an energy drink or else he’ll fall asleep at the wheel. After he drinks it, the beat perks up and he drives home ranting about how energy drinks are going to give everybody cancer and diabetes. Truly a relatable song, even an understandable transition given the situation, but a fucking strange section of life to write a rap song about. This is the sound of Cleen being Cleen, living in the details and thinking in tangents. It feels really natural.
Ladies and gentlemen, storytelling in rhyme form is difficult to do. There’s a reason why most cats just rap non-conceptual raps about being the best: it’s easy. Great rap storytellers have a tough road to hoe because if the story is told well, it’s easy to understand. However, the easier it is to understand, the more exact the MC must be when he writes and raps. MC’s that are masters of storytelling are legendary: Slick Rick, Biggie, Tupac, etc. I’m not saying that Cleen is in that echelon, but he’s done his homework.
Sixteen songs deep, the album closes. Honestly, I wanted more. I won’t describe the other songs because, like a good movie, I don’t want to ruin it for you. If you are a fan of listening to rap, not just having it in the background, and you appreciate people that don’t front, this is a must listen. Yo, I’m down with Cleen and you should be too.