A lyrical and sonic balance must be maintained when one emcee teams up with one producer to craft a full-length project. At it’s best, the combination of two artists working together exclusively forms the ideal marriage between beats and rhymes; content and cohesiveness; raps and replay value. One outshining the other is the most common albatross between capitalizing on the promise of the collaboration and inadvertently creating a polarizing LP that rocks harder as either an acapella or as background music.
For his third studio album, Chicago emcee Pugs Atomz enlisted his Windy City brethren, Grant Parks, to provide the soundscape for his Coal Mine Music/Fat Beats Records release, Kinda Like A Rapper.
The album opens with its most emphatic offering, title track “K.L.A.R.” Producer Grant Parks’s Soul-laced strings and anthemic horns provide a solid sound bed for Pug’s forceful introduction. Here, the Chicago rapper kicks “Maneuvering through the game / Precision with my Rook / A black Bobby Fisher that came here to cook / Torturing y’all squares / I’m just in first gear / You can peddle faster but your still in the rear” — a nimble extended metaphor that becomes an unfortunate outlier as K.L.A.R. continues. The minimalistic bassline and siren-like Soul sample on the album’s lead single, “Rocket Love,” feels summertime ready, although the meaning of the song (love of achieving success) is never clearly translated. This hook-heavy cut only contains one verse, the bulk of which consists of braggadocio cypher rhymes like “I own this beat like city cops with billy clubs strolling they streets” and “competition I’m not talking to / ‘Cause they hearts pump late, cream and sugar too,” that never fully commit to the stated definition.
The seasonal nature of K.L.A.R. continues on “All Right,” a sublime ode to living life and “enjoying that ride”, complete with a simplistic yet contagious hook that sticks around long after the song has ended. “Tomorrow Soon”’s commentary on overcoming adversity maintains a similar groove as predecessors “Rocket Love” and “All Right”. “Let Me In” finds Pugs kicking it to a lady “over chicken, greasy food” on the first verse and describing his career progression in the second verse — nicely flipping the duality of its chorus: “You gonna see what its gonna be when you let me in.” The album shifts to social commentary on “Let’s Get,” a smoothed out track discussing the value of building for the future over spending on frivolous objects.
Excluding the title track, the front half of K.L.A.R. maintains a consistent audial and contextual summertime pace with breezy production, common commentary, similar sounding hooks and basic rhyme schemes. The back half diversifies sonically with Grant Parks’s sped up soul sampling on “Pay No Attention,” “Cold Outside’s”-hopping snare and trippy sound effects, the repetitive, cascading keys on “Like That,” and the jaunty, thumping bass line and crashing snare on “Stereo” — each varying in speed and arrangement.
Pugs is at his best on “Cold Outside”, where he describes the plight and gentrification of his neighborhood through honest, potent lyrics like “Englewood, Chicago / every acre for sale” and “stones, moes, folks on the corners / but me and mine always had cops up on us / so I had to autograph every bus” and “Students say no class today / They got block business / Can’t chill by the lake” — utilizing a slowed, aggressive delivery that emotes the frustration of his hometown’s paradigm. Guest feature Allegra Delores’s perspective laced bars describing life in The Windy City steals the spotlight: “Plagued by segregation / We turn tribalism into hood religion / Counting points on stars gang bangin‘ mathematicians / Coming from the I-double L-I-N-O-I-S / Getting up in your conscious popping rhymes in your chest…This is the Chicago that I know / The surface clean but the dirty bleeds from the concrete.”
The unfortunate reality of K.L.A.R. is that Pugs fails to lyrically reach the level of Grant Parks’s production. Topically, he puts his spin on customary rap fare such as dealing with haters (“Pay No Attention”), relationship strife (“Yes I Did”), hometown pride (“Forever”, “Sunset” ) and braggadocio Hip Hop (“Like That”, “Stereo”), but his tendency to litter each track with sub-par bars downgrades the quality of the album. For example, while shifting to a whisper-rap flow to address life’s detractors on “Pay No Attention,” he inexplicably kicks “Truth’s like a baby / Please pass the forceps.” On K.L.A.R.’s cypher rhymes “Like That” and “Stereo,” he underwhelms with “See keys open doors / So this verse here will open a Porshe” and “any Eskimo knows Pugs is 40 below” respectively. Even when his raps are better than average, rarely do they impress with wittiness, delivery, flow or cadence.
From mic to plug, K.L.A.R. rolls like a traffic ridden ride down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue — rarely going above 35MPH, rarely falling below 25MPH. Uninventive rhyme schemes and a severe lack of imagination conflict with the largely center lane production. Considering this is an album where “I’m getting that bread just like cold cuts” and “wet behind the ears like a tadpole” pass for punch lines, Pugs’ proclamation that he “Can go harder / This is just a starter” feels more like a shallow threat than an actual possibility. Although the disconnect between beats and rhymes jeopardizes the overall replay value, Grant Parks’s solid production throughout is enough to make K.L.A.R. a worthy listen, even if its better as background music.