To date the writers of RapReviews.com have not shown much love for Why?. This should not be surprising, nor do I point this out as some sort of implicit criticism of the site.
One should think twice if a critic or listener does not take to Why?. They are a deeply odd band, which is not surprising, considering they are on the deeply odd Oakland-based anticon label. Lead singer/MC Yoni Wolf’s deadpan whine is certaily not for everyone (when is a deadpan whine for everyone, really?). Wolf’s lyrics are a series of neurotic musings on sex and death. Lyrics like “you act like a slut, but you’re really a freezer,” “to inhaling crushed bones through a dried-up white out pen,” and “there’ll be a time for drying up and dying on sidewalks” are sure to alienate some. A lot of people are not going to like Why?.
And perhaps for good reason. This is unapologetically self-indulgent music. To the extent that Why? adopts rap norms it is arguably to conscend to them, such as on the album’s opener, “Crushed Bones,” which Wolf begins with a series of “yo’s” before transitioning with a purposeful lack of grace into talk-singing folk.
Still, there is something brave and vulnerable about this record. Why?’s lyrics are disturbed and creepy, but not more disturbed and creepy than an average person’s inner life (but perhaps I’ve said too much). Why? explores the mundane elements of depression and hope, how they rear their codependent heads on a moment-to-moment basis in our subconsciouses. The generally non-transparent tenor of the album presents for moments of vulnerable bliss when Yoni breaks from his macabre observations and says something transparent. On “Fall Saddles,” after wax semi-comprehensibly poetic about an estranged religious friend, the song climaxes to Yoni exclaiming “do you still pray about me in your quiet times?” and suddenly the listener knows, on some intuitive album, what he is going for. On the album standout, “Sanddollars,” the chorus lyric “ooooh, these are selfish times” provides a fascinating juxtaposition to the album’s general opaque content.
The backing music can also be construed as either angering or innovative. As musicians, Why?’s talent is apparent. They tend towards sad yet jangly folk-pop. The musical backings are carefully textured collages of keyboard riffs, supplemented by hard-to-place samples and sounds, alternatingly precious and abrasive guitar, extremely understated bass, and both steady and experimental percussion. They are certainly capable of throwing some hip-hop in the mix too, such as on the deeply weird “Waterfalls” or the backpack-rap-meets-Modest-Mouse synthesis, “Act Five.”
Still, while there is obviously a lot to appreciate here, the contrast between the sentimental musical tones and dark lyrics could be interpreted as Why? mocking listeners who aren’t paying enough attention. I took a bunch of friend’s to Why? concert and their ears all seemed to perk up as they slowly began to realize that Why?’s pleasant instrumentation only masked the much darker lyrical content.
Still, to interpret Why?’s downtrodden sentimentality as entirely disigenuous would miss the boat. Why?’s self-consciousness may be grating, but it also paves the way for a uniquely introspective album. Put otherwise, what Why?’s music and lyrics have in common is that they are both sad. And that can manifest itself in a lot of ways.