Regan Farquhar, who has been rhyming under the name Busdriver for more than 15 years, has a good sense of direction. He wants things to go right, even if he goes left.
The prolific Los Angeles MC has spent two decades and nine albums as the epitome of the underdog, unleashing torrents of cultural critiques throughout syllable-slathered soliloquies. He has decried mainstream rap's creative deficit, while briefly flirting with the idea of a more straight-ahead approach since joining the Anti- label. However, imagining the possibility of traditional success didn't outweigh his apprehensions about delivering an inferior product. With his latest full-length, Jhelli Beam, he jettisoned any plans to make a calmer crossover and concentrated on a series of unexpected turns and exploratory textures. He wound up challenging himself even more than the status quo.
"Every time you go left, people think you are going against the establishment, against the Man," the 31-year-old Farquhar says. He instead embarked on a personal agenda, to produce an album dedicated more to "glorifying the idea of inventing." Even its title — a goof on jellybean and the Jheri curl hairstyle — is supposed to evoke "the loose underpinnings of my life in music ... where everything is malleable and wobbly."
After 2007's more "goal-oriented" RoadKillOvercoat, an album that toyed with pop formulas, Farquhar wanted a record that evoked his older approaches. He thought people should look at his music as fun and innovative, rather than as an attempt to infiltrate the masses with heavy-handed social commentary. "So here I am again," he says, "proving to people that I know how to rap and I have songs that should be given credence."
Farquhar drew on the purity of his earlier, more uninhibited output — 2002's Temporary Forever and 2003's The Weather — which in turn was informed by his involvement with the Project Blowed open-mike scene. That community grew out of the Good Life Cafe scene of South Central in the mid-'90s. Its freestyle workshops showed a penchant for what Farquhar calls "mindfuck, a dedication to zaniness, and a high caliber, a virtuosity of rhyming."
Jhelli Beam is likewise cerebrally and indulgently detailed. The album gets live by living for Busdriver's geeked-out flow. Though it's personal and at times politicized, it's too abstract to be merely "conscious rap." Yet for all its kinetic energy it also isn't club music (unless the club is filled with bugged-out electro-disko bloggers). It's "art rap," and at the same time not — due to his self-deprecating attitude toward an art-rap world. It's the kind of technically skilled album you'd expect from someone who came up among peers who'd heckle the mike from your hand if you couldn't chop it up to the beat.
Farquhar also worked on the disc with the heads he first mixed with at the Low End Theory weekly, a series of glitch-hop, post–J. Dilla production improv sessions. In that blender he forged collaborations with beatmakers Daedelus, Nobody, Omid, Nosaj Thing, and Daddy Kev. He coupled them with artists he met on tour — including members of Deerhoof and Islands — and Jhelli Beam slowly congealed.
Words swarm Jhelli Beam, consuming every iota of frequency range not taken up by the incandescent sparkle and smeared strokes of soft synths, heavily reverbed guitars, and compression-glued percussion swing. Its veering tonality and creative dissonance would be more appropriately filed alongside Hot Chip, TTC, and Para One than Jeep beat hip-hop, though it does embrace a production style as bold as any fiercely regional form.
The pressure to innovate instead of imitate forged an honest aesthetic in Farquhar's beloved Project Blowed scene; it continues fueling him in reimagining his dynamic. "I didn't have a conscious objective to sum up on the one-sheet, other than going back to where I'm best," he says.