Spoken word poetry has enjoyed a renaissance in the last few years which can easily be linked to the popularity of rap music. Often, that poetry is speaking from a African-American experience, sometimes you even have poets courting an audience the way rappers do (i.e. competing against each other). I'm sure some spoken word performers would reject the idea of any such connection, but the author of this CD surely won't mind as he sent it to a website called rapreviews.com. And therein lies the problem. This is not a rap album. Not even remotely. It's a poetry album.
Does that mean we can't apply our yet to be trademarked RR standards to this particular record? I don't think so. After all, you got rhythmic vocal expression laid over music here and there. You just have a different evaluation of the different elements that make up rap and spoken word poetry. There's this avangtgarde movement expanding right now in hip-hop that's been labelled 'abstract hip-hop'. Its frontrunners are rappers like Slug, Aesop Rock, Eligh, Sole, Sage Francis, Eyedea or El-P. They tend to make it hard for listeners to get what they're talking about, which makes them attractive to some and annoying to others. By taking this route, hip-hop is merely following where poetry has been heading to for centuries. In poetry you'll find everything rap has ever tried to get across. But as an artist you can always apply different degrees of abstraction to the way you express yourself. The same thing is happening in rap music right now.
Where does the Phlegm project fit in here? Somewhere between the aforementioned rappers, more traditional poetry and, believe it or not, more traditional rap. This is not poetry where every single line is open to interpretation, or worse, where interpretation of every single line is mandatory as they wouldn't make much sense in everyday life. You don't have to be a professor of literature to figure out what Brad Hamers is talking about. The main theme may not always be obvious, but once you listen to the lyrics, everything becomes clear. Well, maybe not everything, but you don't have to know everything about a car to see that it works, do you? "One Night Stands" describes Brad Hamer's nightly encounters with ideas that if not that particular night maybe one day might turn into a poem:
"I keep cheating on myself
having affairs with attractive thoughts in persuasive clothing
running around naked with strangers
and netting them like spiders
A thought stuck on fly paper
And she's the one that woke me up early this morning
she makes me hate my music
she tells me there's answers to every question
which I think is a trick - yeah, she's a trick
homeless without a magician to put her back up his sleeve
She makes me try to express myself
like I'm some sort of puppet to my brain
I fucked her like a virgin, an unpeeled orange
she orgasms ink like a broken well
and my sheets are covered from head to footer
We smoke cigarettes in the dark together
and talk about mirrors and wheat fields and piano keys
we cuddle all night like two fetuses tied up by an umbilical cord
then I leave her for another early morning
to stare out windows and find a different partner
a different idea in a mini skirt
one that fits my high expectations"
Well, some ideas have met his expectations, or else this album wouldn't contain 19 tracks. Some of the topics touched upon made me think of Aesop Rock. Like the big city life of restless nights and dull workdays ("Undersit"):
"I'm unemployed in the mind but my body is a store mannequin 40 hours a week
Without this job my week would be an empty glass
with one annoying crack that needs to be filled with something
So I might as well rise with the sun
and pretend we all have a purpose to live out"
In Brad Hamer's world, people are badly tuned instruments ("Out Of Tune Instruments") - but hey, at least we're making some noise. I guess it takes artists to make symphonies and funky grooves out of this mess. But despite being able to put himself in somebody else's shoes, most of Hamer's thoughts revolve around himself. "A Room With Blue Wallpaper" is not just about feeling blue, it's about being downright depressed, when suddenly "all these ideas are just blown out bulbs" and "tomorrow has been in that dressing room for 4 hours trying on the same cheap clothes it wore all day yesterday." Could be that he's just having a serious love hangover, as the slightly more traditional "Tip-Toeing On A Piece Of String (I Hope I'm Over-Reacting)" suggests. Sadness turns into anger on "Thoughts Thinking About Themselves Under A Projector With A Cracked Mirror And An Unfocused Lens" as he gets political and mocks overzealous US patriotism over hard-hitting hip-hop beats. "A Bad Math Problem" uses a staple hip-hop beat as well, while this poet proves that he can spit like any rapper, coughing up his innermost.
Some cuts had me wondering like the intro to "Who" though: "Who is the genius: the one who creates puzzle or the one who solves it?" Puzzles I wasn't able to solve include "The Public Execution Of The Man With One Finger", "Home Suite Home", "Yellow" and "Three Hundred Sixty Proof".
So if rap music is all you listen to, don't expect too many familiar sights and sounds, they are few and far in between (The slowed down boom bap beat of "Yellow", the scratching in "Who"). What you get is mood music and a urging voice that's filled with despair and frustration. Depending on where your head is at, some of the concepts might go over your head, some will make it nod in agreement. There are a lot of natural and man-made props in Phlegm's poetry. Mayonnaise jars, finger food, fish hooks, rubber bands, potato sacks, spiderwebs, flat tires, sidewalks - they just might stand for something else. And if you don't get some things, there's a chance that Hamer will help you out with adding an instant interpretation, like "sometimes my anxiety lives out of a suitcase - it just won't settle down / and worries are like landmines - hidden well but sometimes explode" - which some experts might not find very elegant, by the way. But after all, this man is speaking directly to the people, feeding off their feedback, that's what separates spoken word poetry from just poetry. "I'm a loner that needs companionship / so last night I gave birth to my mind through my mouth," he says somewhere.
The ambition to cough up what's inside, to speak what's been put on paper and to put it to music is enough reason for this website to review this project. Exposing your emotions will always get you props over here. When J-Live introduces himself on his new album "All of the Above", "I just grab the mic, jump on the stage / soak up the crowd, hittin' em with page after page / of blood, sweat, tears, saliva, sperm, snot / shit, piss, throw-up, everything I got," he just might have forgotten the bodily fluid known as phlegm. And that's where Phlegm might come in.
Music Vibes: 6 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 6 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 6 of 10
Originally posted: April 25, 2002