Let’s address the elephant, err butterfly, in the room right away. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is now a week old and already regarded as one of the most important and innovative hip-hop albums maybe ever. It’s the kind of release that commands attention, that digs into race and identity like few other albums before it, and basically, makes it really fucking hard to be a guy like Action Bronson, tasked with dropping his debut album, Mr. Wonderful, just one week later.
Of course, each of these guys exist planets apart when it comes to their craft. Kendrick, a freakishly wise kid from Compton with music aimed at changing society as much as it entertains it. Action, a sumo-sized chef-turned-rapper with a palate for the absurd and comical, both cuisine- and rap-wise. One’s steak and the other’s potato — both essential on the plate, but you know why the sign outside reads one and not the other.
Mr. Wonderful makes no fuss about its state as a starchy side. In fact, Bronson embraces it, whipping gobs of empty, but weirdly palatable lyricism into a flurry of savory tracks. Opening with a punchy piano sample from Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar," “Brand New Car” immediately shows Bronson in rare form, singing the hook with the hilariously bad enthusiasm of a drunk uncle at karaoke night. From there, Bronson fills the space with the typical Bronson bars, a stream-of-thought mish mash of topics including, but not limited to, Derek Jeter, copious amounts of chronic and even more copious helpings of Crispix.
For the majority of Mr. Wonderful, Bronson plays the same character he’s crafted over his long succession of mix tapes, just backed by big-budget production from the likes of Mark Ronson, Noah Shebib and longtime collaborator Party Supplies. Each of these guys illuminates the album in their own light, leaving hardly a dull moment in the span of its 50-minute runtime. From Ronson’s bright pianos and funked-out horns on “Baby Blue” to Shebib’s creepy, tape-in-reverse beat on “Actin Crazy” and the barroom-brawling vibes of “City Boy Blues,” Mr. Wonderful stays interesting thanks to an array of stellar production from behind the boards.
Even if it sounds like most of these lines were written in a hot-boxed backseat on the way to recording, Bronson references so many obscure elements from pop culture's past, it’s hard to call any of this unimaginative. Rather, it’s just kind of impersonal. There are only so many “Wooden” with “Doc Gooden” rhymes you can make before your listener craves a little more insight into who you actually are as a person. “Baby Blue” is Bronson’s most personal track yet, but even it can’t get past the “why you gotta hurt me, girl?” trope to deliver anything really new or interesting about his character. Even so, it’s one of Wonderful’s best tracks thanks to Mark Ronson’s instantly memorable production and one delightfully hateful verse from Chance the Rapper.
If you’re familiar with Bronson, you won’t find too many surprises on Mr. Wonderful. It’s a carefree contrast to the dense intensity of an album like Lamar’s, and a perfectly passable debut, but don’t expect to see it alongside some of this year’s already-incredible and still-to-come releases. With his wild culinary wisdom and a TV food show now in the works, Bronson’s already found success beyond rap, which might be his biggest achievement of them all.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars