P.O.S: Hip-Hop Innovation, Punk-Rock Disposition

P.O.S: Never Better P.O.S: Never Better (Rhymesayers, 2/3/09)

P.O.S: “Let it Rattle”
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Between finishing up a tour with his other musical endeavor as the vocalist / guitarist for Minneapolis punk band Building Better Bombs and filming videos for tracks on his third album, Never Better, rapper P.O.S has been chilling in the Land of Lakes, schlepping to gigs in his crusty-but-trusty ’95 Honda (the one with “the broken heater that you have to kick”), and enjoying invaluable time catching up with his nine-year-old son, Jake. He’s been on a roller coaster of work lately, but at least he hasn’t had to work a day job since 2004.

After the release of his first album, Ipecac Neat, in 2004, P.O.S (a.k.a. Stefon Alexander) quit his day job and devoted all of his time to making music. Since then, he released a second solo album with 2006 full-length Audition, and he followed that in late 2008 with the debut Building Better Bombs album, Freak Out Squares. In February of 2009, however, he released his magnum opus — his third solo album, Never Better. With a carefully crafted mixture of samples, big beats, snare rolls, and rock riffs — topped with Alexander’s lyrical prowess — Never Better is vying to be the best hip-hop album of the year.

Speaking from a video shoot somewhere in north Minneapolis, Alexander speaks about the importance to him of working on music full time. It’s a theme that is crucial to Never Better. “More than anything, the biggest theme that keeps coming up is the idea that 90 percent of people work in an office, or work at Dairy Queen, or work at a fucking graphic-design chunk of Target where they don’t necessarily care about anything that they do with 90 percent of their day,” Alexander explains.

“They just spend their entire day waiting to get off work so that they can go spend the rest of their time while they’re tired and hungry eating some food, and playing their video games, and living off of somebody else’s dream. The norm should be: people do what they care about, what they want to do, and what they love.”

Given how the 27-year-old speaks, it’s easy to see him as a young Gil Scott-Heron. Alexander is steeped in the “everyman” experience, from his single-parent upbringing to his punk-rock beginnings to his desire to be a social-studies or music teacher if his voice gives out. There’s no thug, gunfire, bump and grind, or swagger to him or his music, and there probably never will be. His self-described and self-imposed “punker-than-thou” guilt prevents him from following that route, even when performing in the often ego-bloated rap world.

“Ninety percent of people work in an office, or work at Dairy Queen, or work at a fucking graphic-design chunk of Target where they don’t necessarily care about anything that they do with 90 percent of their day. The norm should be: people do what they care about, what they want to do, and what they love.”

“The ego thing is embarrassing to me,” Alexander says. “There’s a rapper’s ego, and then there’s Kanye West. That sounds like talking trash, and it’s not talking trash. It’s just one of those things where you give your full support to somebody — and I was like, ‘Yo, this guy’s next to blow, next to blow!’ — and then he comes out with a wreath on his head on Rolling Stone.

“Don’t get me wrong, I respect Kanye West — and maybe it’s the young punk rocker in me — but I think of Ian MacKaye as the supreme icon of integrity and an attitude of DIY. I respect Kanye West more than I respect most of the rappers out there, but I’m one of those people who comes from a place where I feel that there’s a difference between being humble and showing some humility. If I somehow manage to miraculously sell a million records, and then I get up and I’m like, ‘See, I told y’all that I’d sell a million records. Fuck y’all! Look at me. I’m the fucking shit!’ Then yes, you can call me to laugh. But I guarantee that that’s not how it’s coming out at all.”

Though he’s humble about his ambitions, Alexander does not hide his pursuit of them. Never Better is a classic example of how to get things done by using the indirect route of Minnesota niceness.

“When I first turned this record in, the owner of the record label said, ‘It would have been amazing if you had turned this record in before you turned in Audition,’” Alexander says. Rather than break into typical rapper histrionics, he left the demo with Rhymesayers’ owner for a second spin. “It took him sitting down to listen to it — maybe two weeks, three weeks — and his entire view on it had changed. It’s just one of those records that doesn’t hit you immediately.”

Never Better is Alexander’s subversion of Audition’s pop-leaning sensibilities. “I deliberately went in there and made music that I felt was interesting to me — really angular stuff,” he says. “I wanted to have crazy toms and crazy, abrasive beats. I wanted to make it actually aggravating in some points. The production quality is a step back a little bit from Audition, because I wanted to make it sound different to me.”

His rationale, Alexander explains, was reinforced by a recent pop-saturated experience. “I did this tour with Gym Class Heroes,” he says. “And I have no disrespect for Gym Class Heroes. I think that Gym Class Heroes do their thing, and I like those guys, and they were really hospitable on that tour. But I don’t have the need or want in my life to make pop songs. It’s a good skill for someone to have, and maybe it’s my own way of sabotaging myself, but I only want to make these kinds of songs.”

This new P.O.S album also is heavy on political content, touching upon topics such as greed, corruption, and consumerism — themes that are common with the Midwest and East Coast rap traditions with which P.O.S most connects, versus the bling-bang-boobs-bongs themes at play in old-school, West Coast rap. These political themes are strongest on Never Better’s first track, “Let It Rattle.” “The line in the song is, ‘They’re out for presidents to represent them,’ which is a throwback to the Nas line in ‘The World is Yours,’ when he says, ‘I’m out for presidents to represent me,’” Alexander says.

“He’s talking about money. So I say, ‘They’re out for presidents to represent them. You think a president can represent you?’ And I’m still talking about money there, like, ‘Do you really think that money is going to represent who you are and who you can be?’ And then I say, ‘Do you really think that a president can represent you?’ I’m talking about whatever president is in office. So I’m talking about money almost more than I’m talking about the physical president of the United States.

“But then again, if you look at the album artwork, there is that Shepard Fairey print of Obama. It’s all blacked out, but in the negative space of Obama’s shirt, the artist has a Nike swoosh to present the idea that you need to be careful who you give your whole-blood faith to. You need to realize that a lot of what you voted for is branding, is marketing, and it’s going to be a couple years before we realize ‘yes, Obama does know.’”

Alexander voted for and has hope for the Obama administration, but his punk-rock sensibilities make him healthily wary of any authority figure. It is this type of scrutiny that keeps Alexander honest when analyzing his accomplishments as P.O.S. “That’s one of the things that happen when you grow up in Minneapolis,” he says.

“I don’t know my level of success yet. I just know I don’t have to work a normal job. I don’t know who actually listens to my music, except for the people that come to my shows. It would be really presumptuous for me to be like, ‘Hey, can you contact [Spoon singer] Britt Daniel and see if we can have our people meet?’ Because I don’t have people. I mean, I guess that I have people, but I don’t think about them as ‘my people.’ That’s not me.”

After a pause, Alexander adds, “You know, the thing about punk rock  —  it might be the only kind of music where the more underground you are, [you’re getting] more fake respect, and the more ‘hardcore’ you are. That kind of vibe is sought out and respected. I don’t think that that’s necessarily true of any other style of music. When you’re a kid and you submerge yourself in that whole punker-than-you thing…well, anyway, being from Minnesota, you never want to presume that you’re a big deal. You never want to presume that people want to work with you or people want to hear you. You just keep your eyes on the prize and do what you want to do.”

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