You know your hip-hop music has gone full-on meta when you use dialog from Six Characters in Search of an Author by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello. It fits that Bob Benson teaches electronic music at Coe College. Hip hop by academics has a checkered record; Cornel West’s hip-hop album is pretty bad, and DJ Spooky’s music sounds sometimes as if it’s his artist’s statement instead of actual art.
What makes Identity Crisis more than an academic exercise is Benson’s skill as a composer and producer. The production on “Bite Your Lip” and “Til You Got It” verges on EDM-tinged pop, but it has enough harmonic variety to not feel as synthetic and fake as EDM can. “Silhouette” has some obvious Prince influence, but the boom-bap beat gives it a different flavor than Prince’s more jagged groove.
There are some overly pretentious lyrics, particularly on “Abandon Ship”: “Sniffing lines of cocaine sun / Taking hits of wind we can’t outrun.” Benson’s vocals on this song sound a bit like Trent Reznor in a mood to croon, which, along with the lyrics, put the song on the knife’s edge between being effective and being unintentionally funny. But the production behind his voice is full of great details: the vague, echoey synth burbles and what our friend Tack Fu calls a “marching beat.”
It makes more sense to consider Identity Crisis as closer to something like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton than a conventional hip-hop record. This is most evident on “Red Handed,” which has some of Miranda’s hyper-literate, hyper-enunciated flow.
The quotes from Pirandello tie it together thematically, and the narrator’s cultured British accent reminds you this isn’t a Nicki Minaj record. Six Characters… is metafictional and trippy, and the excerpts put an interesting conceptual frame around Benson’s philosophical musings on identity and relationships This is an ambitious work that mostly succeeds musically, and where Benson gets lyrically overprofound, the quality of his production and arrangements allow you to just go with it.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 262.