Beats & Rhymes: Sims’ Bad Time Zoo

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Sims: Bad Time ZooSims: Bad Time Zoo (Doomtree, 2/15/11)

Sims: “Burn It Down”
[audio:|titles=Sims: “Burn It Down”]

Anyone who has seen Twin Cities rapper/producer P.O.S live between the gradual success of Audition in 2006 and Never Better in 2009 has also had the chance to sample the Doomtree crew of which he’s a part. One of the stronger presences at these shows has been Sims, who’s by no means exactly like P.O.S, but is a worthy kindred spirit who gets the crowd in a similar, righteously agitated state of mind.

The lean-built MC is as averse to laid-back songs as his half-rapper, half-hardcore-dude friend. He’s strong through the shoulders and busy with gestures, a good frame for his sharp, often-terse flow. Another vital presence, less obvious onstage but still essential, is producer Lazerbeak, who has made beats for nearly every Doomtree release and doesn’t hear much of a border between catchy synth-based production and scratchy horns-and-soul-vocal melts.

The strength of Doomtree is that no two artists are too terribly alike (see the crew’s self-titled, all-member-pile-on album from 2008). The spectrum runs from the pugnacious Mike Mictlan to the patient density of Dessa‘s 2010 release, A Badly Broken Code. The group supports its members’ identities without intruding on them, something that holds true on Sims’ second proper solo album, Bad Time Zoo.

Sims goes it alone for nearly an entire hour, with just one guest verse during the whole thing (from P.O.S, on “Too Much”). Lazerbeak produces every beat here, making for a collaborative but focused feel. The identity that emerges for Sims, at first, has a lot to do with his opening verse on Never Better‘s “Low Light Low Life.”  His specialty is creating the feeling of being sealed into a living nightmare of isolation, reckless corporate domination, and hopeless social ignorance. What comes out over time, though, is that Sims is a straightforward MC who’s brave enough to work through the contradictions of his own emotions.

The album begins remarkably like a real-time journal of anxiety — not a panic attack, but a gradual gnaw of irritation and frustration. Lazerbeak’s vocal samples on opening track “Future Shock” are either backward or cleverly slurred. A sharp hand-drum sound, not a comforting fat kick, holds down the beat as Sims ponders the isolating effects of technology that’s supposed to bring us together. “Burn It Down” starts with the promise of something more fun, but Sims pelts it with more alienating imagery. That aforementioned P.O.S verse on “Too Much” ends up being a story about almost hitting a kid with his car.

On the fifth track, “One Dimensional Man,” he points out that folks who buy hybrid cars and repeat things from Michael Moore films aren’t helping the big picture all that much. The song piles on gloomy chords and shouts of “oh!” It’s meant to be either despairing or funny (after all, Doomtree’s own site points out that Sims himself drives a hybrid). Whichever one it is, it feels a bit trumped-up, and it distracts from Sims’ taut, efficient delivery.

He digs out of that hole a couple tracks later on “Good Times,” chopping his syllables into slippery funk over a bass line that’s catchier than the chorus itself. It’s a re-start for an album that’s decent to begin with. If you’ve read too much into the first few tracks, the Sims on “Weight” might sound like a different dude entirely, because it’s about casting off cynicism and will make crowds get their hands in the air in the goofiest way possible. (And if that’s a Sparks sample, which it sounds like, then that’s just awesome.)

Even on one more social hell-scape, “The Veldt,” Sims and Lazerbeak create something as playful as it is dark. Mixing the idioms of human and animal savagery, Sims wiggles his way between Heart Of Darkness and “911 is a Joke.” The line “Klonopin in the water / Piranha management” is a great example of the quick internal-rhyme pileups that Sims can orchestrate when he pushes the language as hard as he presses the point.

As the subject matter keeps expanding, Sims and Lazerbeak turn in the album’s best tracks, “Radio Opaque” and “Sink Or Syncopate.” The former has Plain Ole Bill scratching furiously into Lazerbeak’s arrangement of horns and disembodied vocal phrases, and Sims even remembers to be funny: “You can act like the Fonzie / But inside you Fozzie Bear; find a new hobby.” The latter begins with a minor-key sigh of strings, yet it’s more complex than another dip into the gloom. Even as the song stretches out a final verse about another fraught conversation, he grounds his story in bursts of detail, calling a downtown skyline “that bright battleship on the horizon.”

Yes, there’s plenty of the frustrated citizen and the hardened pep-talker on Bad Time Zoo. There’s also a strong MC who’s using all of this time and all of these great beats to gradually lay out a bigger vision.

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