It’s difficult to pigeon hole Basehead. The group formed and fronted by Michael Ivey has been listed as everything from progressive rap to alternative rock, and after a spiritual awakening for Ivey in the mid-1990’s, they got lumped into gospel/Christian music too. “Play with Toys” is not one of those albums though — it’s their 1992 debut on the now defunct Imago Records. It was widely acclaimed at the time, making a lot of “best of” lists in various publications that year, but nearly 30 years later I never hear any discussion of it. In fact before writing this review I struggled to remember even one major song from it, which gave me all the more incentive to look back on it and see if it’s still worth all the hype it got at the time.
I’m not sure “2000 BC” was the best place to start. Ivey sounds like a less convincing version of Beck, mumbling and singing his way through verses that can barely be heard above his band. It’s like the Shy Ronnie skit with Rihanna from Saturday Night Live in real life. “Brand New Day” is slightly better, although the call and response he does with a fellow band member still shows an appreciable difference in volume. I wind up wanting to hear more from the dude who keeps saying “Consider the positives man. Consider the positives! Yes man, yes! Yes you got it!” He’s got the charisma and personality that Ivey lacks.
Perhaps calling Basehead “alternative” at the time was a way to inform people not to expect the swagger of most rap acts, be they edutainers, gangsters, poets or freestyle battlers. In alternative rock you can get away with being shy and self-effacing, hiding your eyes behind a huge mop of hair, looking away from the audience while you play or sing. Even his aforementioned bandmate bemoans Ivey’s lack of confidence on the song “Not Over You.” Quote: “I don’t know man. Maybe it’s cause you be walkin around depressed all the time. You walk around like this all the time, then have a tendency to get drunk all the time.” Ouch. He even tells him to “write some happy songs (and) think of something positive” instead.
If Ivey wasn’t already a sad sack, turning on the “Evening News” wasn’t going to help much. If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the last 30 years it’s that the newscast has a relentless focus on negativity just to get the highest audience rating possible. I get that it’s human nature for people to want to hear about or see a tragedy, in the same way that they gawk at a car wreck or gather around a bar brawl to watch the drunks swing at each other. It’s somehow hard wired into our DNA and the evening news just exploits that more ruthlessly than any other form of media imaginable.
Listening to “Play with Toys” and staring at the open bottle of alcohol on the cover, I can’t say I’m surprised that Ivey eventually turned to Christ for help with his life. We can’t necessarily make the mistake of assuming that an artist and their art are inseparable, as we all know that rap has more “studio gangsters” than “real G’s” for example, but I get the feeling Ivey was embracing the alt-rock aspect of being brutally honest as a way to connect with his audience. I’m not saying “Ode to My Favorite Beer” isn’t a relatable sentiment, but Ivey’s dispassionate and morose singing don’t work for me.
Even though Ivey tends to sing more than rap, there’s no denying there’s a rap music stream flowing through the album, complete with deejay scratches and the occasional groove that shines through the dark clouds. Much like critics of the day couldn’t seem to agree on how to classify Basehead, I find it equally hard to classify “Play with Toys” as a BAD album. All reviews are essentially one person’s opinion, and in my opinion, I didn’t miss much by not listening to this album for a few decades. It’s possible though that if you came upon Basehead at the right time in your life, Ivey’s sad sack music may have spoken to you personally, and I won’t deny that his emotional honesty is refreshing in a genre rife with posturing. Let’s just say that it’s not really for me, but I can get how it became so acclaimed.