Sunday, 24 April 2016

The New CALassic by Cal Chuchesta (2015) - Mixtape Review

Hi, everyone. Andras Mahan here, the Internet’s sincerest cinema nerd. And it’s time for a review of the debut mixtape by Cal Chuchesta: The New CALassic.

Cal Chuchesta is a rapper/producer, as well as the comedic alter-ego of music critic Anthony Fantano of the Needle Drop, a guy who I stumbled upon one day while looking for reviews of Aesop Rock’s Skelethon and immediately took a shine to. Sure, his more hipster-lead tendencies do shine through a little too much in some of his reviews, but otherwise, the guy comes across very articulate and insightful when it comes to the music he looks at. And on his show, he has the character of Cal as his roommate, who I guess is meant to represent the average pop radio listener that keeps calling everything new that they hear “teh best thing EVAR!” While his antics on the show were pretty adorkable, I’ll admit that he was more a distraction than anything else when Fantano was the guy I wanted to see. I guess this is how most people feel when reviews get interrupted by skits and/or storylines.

Every so often, Cal would showcase a beat he’d made to Anthony and, because of fan demand, he ended up releasing not one but three beat tapes full of them. And then in August of 2015, after a few track drops and a storyline in Fantano’s reviews about him selling his soul to the Devil for a record contract… which may be one of the weirdest attempts at viral marketing I’ve seen, this mixtape hit the online outlets to a welcoming response of “we know this is a joke”. Well, in spite of that, I will do my best to go over this thing’s merits and demerits as best I can because just treating it as a novelty release can only get you so far. Also, if you’re annoyed by how much I’m cribbing Anthony’s style for this intro, don’t worry: It’s just for this paragraph.

I briefly brought up this point back when I discussed Starving Artist, Hungry Emcee, but I think it’s here where that detail needs to fully addressed: Making bad hip-hop intentionally. Regular readers will know that I have often advocated for enjoying certain bad movies for ironic reasons, but recommending music along those same lines is a whole different ball park. Making intentionally bad music takes a very deft touch to be able to pull off, given how a lot of comedy hip-hop albums just end up being one-and-dones because they are too grating to listen to any more frequently. So, it has to do a tightrope walk between being purposefully stupid and/or silly and actually being listenable, something that even some of the better acts like Weird Al Yankovic and The Lonely Island don’t always succeed at.

Here, this mixtape is already off to a good start because the production is fairly solid. Not only does pick some good borrowed beats to rap over (Numbers On The Boards, 1 Train, Getting’ Jiggy Wit’ It [mileage may vary on that one]) but the production attributed to Cal himself is alright as well. Have to admit, going back over his Cal Tapes, the beats he makes do a great job of doing that balancing act while creating their own dreamy and chilled-out textures. Just check out the opening and closing tracks on his first tape to see what I mean. The more technical side of things is good too, as the A$AP Mob-flavoured reverb on Cal’s voice gives a nice feel to the tracks.

The actual songs themselves, as you can probably tell from Fantano’s day-job and Chuchesta’s place within it, play out mostly like parodies of a lot of popular rap clichés. We’ve got the aforementioned borrowed beats that Lil Wayne helped popularise as a standard practice for online mixtapes, the required love song with Be My Bae Bae as well as the tail-end of Parody, the depiction of selling drugs subverted with Friend From The Apple Store where he helps transport Apple goods, not to mention the reiterations of “Hey buddy” that float around in the background of a lot of tracks that, given how they start out on his rendition of Hot Nigga (here titled Hot Dinner), make for a nice bit of wigger parody. The rest of the track list kind of reads as the clichés and norms of modern-day hip-hop filtered through the almost infantile innocence of Cal’s character. If it’s not directly referencing standard song topics, the song is about rather innocuous things like making dinner and throwing up from eating too much Halloween candy.

There’s a sort of running thread through the mixtape about how Cal tries to build himself up as this hot shit MC, getting regular phone calls from YouTube personality MisterDoodyHead about how he wants to sign him, even though we’re told in a radio interview skit that he is already signed to every record label out there, apparently. Said interview contains a radio freestyle over the previously mentioned Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It, which of course they don’t like, which gets Cal into a mood and leads into the impotent roar of I Am Angry where he says that he’ll let everything out… and then proceeds to just waffle on for the rest of the track. Said emotional breakdown isn’t a rarity on this mixtape, as Be My Bae Bae and Sad Boy both end with Cal being so overemotional that he can’t even finish the songs in question. In his despair after being dissed by the DJs, the engineer (who may or may not just be a voice in Cal’s head) bring in his friends for the closing posse track over the 1 Train instrumental. Said posse track, I Need My Friends, kind of plays out a bit like a less violent version of Tyler, The Creator’s Window. Yeah, it’s weird and kind of misaligned, but there is some semblance of a narrative to this thing; at the very least, the track ordering gives that impression and gives the product as a whole a nice steady flow to it.

And speaking of flow, we’ve gone this far into the review and we haven’t gotten to Cal’s actual rapping yet. You may think that this is just lame meme rap, and it kind of is, but there is a definite method to it. He has the typical awkward flow of just about anyone who thinks they can try their hand at rapping but don’t really understand why cadence is so important (trust me, I should know), but then again that is fairly easy to do intentionally. This is where the character of the guy kicks in, as his naiveté leads to plenty of “well, he just doesn’t know any better” giggles. It also ends up making a nice off-set for some of the guest verses on here too, like Filthy Frank bringing out his Pink Guy persona on the Cocoa remix or creepy vegan John Sakars on the I Need My Friends posse track; it all gives a good sense that Cal is in way over his head in this game.

Or, at least he would be if he didn’t actually bring some decent lyrics here and there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all pretty cringey, but you know what they say about broken clocks. While Friend From The Apple Store is pretty wonky in terms of progression, it holds a stable enough story and Cal’s delivery gives a good impression of how the rather surreal situation he’s in confounds even him. Probably the best example of Cal actually trying for quotables is, oddly enough, the track built around him trying to show that he isn’t just a parody on the track Parody. The chorus is pretty solid ("Got people callin’ me a parody, but no rapper can compare to me") and maybe it’s just the film geek in me but I kind of dug his couplet involving Jurassic Park/Jurassic World.

All in all, given the impenetrable layers of kayfabe surrounding the artist that pretty much write-off any attempts to look at it seriously, it’s kind of difficult to make an overall assessment of the thing. However, as a comedic novelty hip-hop mixtape, this was actually fun to listen to. The cringe comedy is just enough so that you feel it but don’t want to instinctively turn off the music as a result of it, the beats are good with production from Cal himself as well as FrankJavCee, along with some lifted instrumentals, and the earnestness of the character combined with how the mixtape itself is well-produced and mixed (aesthetically, at the very least) make the aimless lyrics and attempts at satire go down a lot smoother than with a lot of other artists that try this same thing. Without any kind of irony in my words, I genuinely want more tapes like this; how often do we get to hear legitimately good parody hip-hop anymore? It’s rare to find, especially stuff that’s consistent for longer than a single three-minute video on YouTube. I’m feeling a decent to strong 7 on this thing. Tran…

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