Sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover. The cover art for “The Variety Pack” shows an animated condom box, the appropriate symbol for this one-track-minded album. “The Variety Pack” is essentially a compilation album for Rhode Island’s Groupthink (emcee Shawn Waters and producer Zan). It’s comprised of the entire 2005 “Platinum Fangs” LP, five tracks from an upcoming project from “The Catatonics” (Waters and his live DJ), and three tracks from the 2004 album “Pocketbook Fetish”. Groupthink landed a deal with Euro label Copasetik Recordings in 2003, but the record company collapsed shortly after “Pocketbook Fetish” was released. The duo continued with their grind, resulting in the creation and release of this album under Beowulf Recordings.
While some have been quick to praise Groupthink as cutting edge and original (which I agree with), that doesn’t necessarily equate to the best music. On the positive tip, the production on this album is very impressive, avoiding the recycled sounds saturating the commercial market. To their credit, the group plays all the instruments themselves, quite an accomplishment for such a great sounding album. The problem with this disc is that it lacks lyrical “variety”. There are a select few topics that can be covered exclusively for the duration of a hip-hop album: daily life, social awareness, politics, and poverty, just to name a few. Roach-motel sex is not one of them. When Detroit’s Dirty Dozen dropped 2004’s “D12 World”, a common complaint was Bizarre’s foul “Just Like U”. Now imagine sitting through an entire album of “Just Like U”s and you’ve got “The Variety Pack”. Even though I like Waters’ vocal delivery, the content of his lyrics, while funny at times, wears thin on the listener due to sheer volume. A substantial number of the album’s 24 tracks, particularly in the beginning half of the album, revolve around cheap, sleazy sexual references. Obviously intended to be humorous, the result is actually degrading, disturbing, and flat-out distasteful. This negatively affects the remainder of the album, overshadowing songs that would otherwise be praised.
The album starts with “Stripper’s Romance”, where Waters explains, in a brooding, monotone voice, why he’s kicking his stripper girlfriend to the curb:
“Baby put on your chastity belt
and make me a tuna melt
Don’t lie, I can tell you’ve been dancing all day
just by the way your pussy smelled
Rubbing your tits in guys’ faces
and getting your ass felt
I think it’s pretty messed up
I make enough to buy you lobster
But you still take the grand
and suck and fuck that dirty-ass Italian mobster”
Somehow I don’t think she’s losing sleep over the breakup. It’s a shame the track suffers from bath-water lyrics because it taints the catchy, jittery beat. In fairness, seeing as how this is only the first song, it’s forgivable. Every rap album has at least one sexually-charged song, right? On the groupie-chasing “The Odyssey”, the pleasant guitar and horn loop is stamped with a Pharrell-like, off-key “G-Think Tour, we’re bangin’ whores” chorus. Hmmm, two sex-themed tracks in a row. Awkward, but still not yet out of hand. “Big Mucking Deal” sports superb, dramatic production. Waters even goes into an insightful mode during an eloquent piano break:
“[The] industry’s like a chess game
they sacrifice pawns
Don’t you seek advice from Shawn
while I’m building my throne
I’ll wreck this shit on my own, man
if that’s what it takes
it’s time to raise the stakes
time to cut the brakes
most these faggots is fake
they pack they fudge and eat cake
I’m shifting real weight
I’ll use your body as bait”
Then the track deteriorates into a series of rants:
“Your mom’s a dyke, BIG DEAL!
You used to be a woman, BIG DEAL!”
Now we’re getting out of hand. When “Trail of the Dead” arrives, the album finally takes a sex sabbatical. One of my favorite tracks on the album, Waters’ pure talent shines brightly as he describes a battle scene over an equally masterful production. Too bad the track is less than two minutes long. This glimmer of hope quickly disappears with “Smokin’ Turd” a short, pseudo spoken-word joint whose title says it all. “F#ck Around” is a robotic, up-tempo joint with Waters adjusting his delivery to match the tempo to nice effect, but again the content is stuck on one topic:
“She was born with big tits, but absolutely no brain
and the sound of her voice drove me insane
But I don’t give a fuck
I wants to get my dick sucked
By any means necessary
Yes, it’s hereditary”
This is unfortunate because it completely negates a stellar third verse. “F.I.N.E.” is another Ron Jeremy-influenced sweet-talking session:
“On the dance-floor, my finger’s in her butt
Her man comes over, I’m like ‘sup!’
Here’s 50 bucks
Go buy yourself another Von Dutch hat”
One listen to “When Rappers Go Pop” will stop you dead in your tracks. Is this the same guy we’ve been listening to?! An incredible, deeply-personal track about an ended relationship, Waters executes so well that I have no idea why he even bothers with tasteless tracks like the ones mentioned earlier. A couple more of these and you’d be reading an entirely different review.
“Afterlife After Party” is Waters’ version of what heaven should be like. This track is complicated to assess. On the one hand, I must acknowledge the skill it took to limit metaphors to one focused topic per verse (take a good guess at the topic of verse one…). Remember how Jadakiss’ “Why?” record was crazy nice, but he’d spit random bars that were unrelated to the rest of the verse? Waters gets major props for putting in the extra effort and staying on a directed path in these verses. On the other hand, at this point, we’ve reached six tracks about sex and we’ve only had eight songs total (interludes not included)! Luckily, the next two verses deviate from Waters’ subject of choice and overall the track is a success. The positive momentum carries over to “Meet Lazy Eye”, boasting not only uncompromising social commentary but a nice musical backdrop that features thumping drums and melodic horns.
But following the trend seen throughout the album, “Meet Lazy Eye” is immediately rubbed out by the next track, “Dookie Stains”, an interlude that sounds like a bad Jimmy Fallon sketch. At least Jimmy was funny sometimes. This is just disturbing. Then comes “Betsy Ross”, which is semi-successful (I’ll explain in a moment) as a tongue-in-check parody. Musically, the song sounds like it could be a pop-rock love song. Instead, Waters verbalizes a tale about soliciting a prostitute. This is precisely the moment when you realize how damaging the first half if the album was to the rest. If “Betsy Ross” was on any other album (where it would be the only sex-heavy track) or placed several tracks earlier, listeners would truly appreciate its cleverness. But since almost every track up to this point has been about this exact topic, listeners have been completely desensitized. “International Sex Symbol” takes the sexual antics to another level, walking the blasphemous tightrope. “Secret Song” closes out the “Platinum Fangs” part of the album.
The next eight songs are considered bonus tracks. “Dial. Ring. Tone. Message”, “Soma” and “Dutch Baby” are from the Catatonics project. They definitely carry a deeply-rooted electronica vibe and clearly stand out amidst all the other hip-hop tinged songs on the album. Fans of the growing electronica/hip-hop hybrid craze will take particular interest in these tracks.
“One of My Goals in Life is to Become a Longsnapper in the NFL”, “Eros”, “There’s An Extrovert Underneath This Introvert Exterior”, “Grape Farmer”, and “Art Fornicates Life” are the five tracks from “Pocketbook Fetish”. Though I have not listened to “Pocketbook Fetish” personally, these five tracks would indicate that Groupthink’s debut was considerably more diverse than “Platinum Fangs”, probably one reason why it was received so warmly by critics at the time.
From a production standpoint, “The Variety Pack” is really dope and original. Where the album suffers is its bias towards sexually-demeaning lyrics. It’s one thing to refer to sex in your songs. It’s an entirely different monster when using the type of unintelligent language that Waters does here. There are moments in the album when childish, yet disgraceful vulgarities arise that one could only imagine coming from hormone-crazed teenagers, not legitimate artists. That’s the dividing line between Groupthink and figures like Too $hort and Kool Keith. While the latter two managed to be somewhat creative, unique, and even grown-up in their handling of the subject, listeners will recognize lyrics from “The Variety Pack” from messages scribbled in a public bathroom stall.
All this being said, despite the flaws, Waters shows flashes of brilliance (“Trail of the Dead”, “When Rappers Go Pop”, “Meet Lazy Eye”, “Betsy Ross”) behind the mic. If he develops upon these strengths, it should only be a matter of time before Groupthink becomes a force in the competitive underground scene.