[Music Review] Watsky – Cardboard Castles

Watsky_Cardboard_Castles_CoverThere are a few ‘unequivocal’ facts about rap and hip hop music:

  1. It’s all about the cash, money, and hoes.
  2. Rap lyrics are simple, monosyllabic, and sophomoric.
  3. Respect is earned by being ‘hard,’ not from hard work.

With his newest album, Cardboard Castles, the San Francisco-born George Watsky defies all of those conventions, presenting a clever album that is incredibly topical, intelligent, and focuses on hard work and pragmatism to succeed.

Cardboard Castles is Watsky’s first mainstream-available album and is a 17-track smorgasbord of intelligently written lyrics and orchestral beats.  There’s a ton of diversity here.  Watsky’s beats are varied and range from upbeat and playful (“Strong as an Oak”) to traditionally hip-hop (“Moral of the Story”), and while they’re consistent and catchy, the star of the show is the clever and thoughtful lyrics and the manner in which they’re employed by the emcee.

Perhaps best exemplified in this lyric: “And maybe someday you will see me in a glossy photo / no weirdo’s rocked the bells as hard as me since Quasimodo,” it should come as no surprise that the Def Poetry Jam alum is able to craft rhymes that are both funny and intelligent.  This ability is prevalent throughout the album and is really the defining characteristic of Watsky as a rapper. 

The content of Cardboard Castles is lighthearted: while Watsky does throw the occasional f-bomb, the overall tone of the album is playful.  “Kill a Hipster” is a great example, with Watsky and guest performer Chinaka Hodge sarcastically waxing poetic about hipster culture and gentrification, going so far as to drop the beat for an indie music-inspired interlude.  It’s clever and thoughtful and, to top it off, is incredibly catchy.

The title track “Cardboard Castles” might be my favorite cut (although I love “Hipster”), because it really embodies what the album is all about.  Starting with an a cappella intro, the song goes into an optimistic verse defined by how ‘normal’ it is to have hopes and dreams.  With clever rhymes and eternal optimism, all with the recognition that success takes hard work, it’s a great example of the tone of the album.

“Hey, Asshole” featuring British chanteuse Kate Nash focuses on one of the other defining themes of Watsky’s rapping: it can be incredibly realistic and self-deprecating.   It certainly isn’t “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” or any other infallible rap anthem.  And that’s sort of what’s great about it.  While tossing around the world “real” in hip-hop music can have a lot of connotations, with Watsky it’s rooted in pragmatism and is incredibly topical.  Perhaps this latitude Watsky is afforded because he’s a white rapper and the expectation to be ‘hard’ is lessened; regardless, it makes for a refreshing listening experience.

“Tiny Glowing Screens, Pt. 1 & Pt. 2,” finds Watsky reflecting on our culture’s dependence on smart phones and technology as a whole, with “Pt. 2” featuring Watsky performing as a slam poet with somber piano behind him and lamenting how ‘tiny’ we all really are.  Hardly traditional hip-hop content, but it works surprisingly well.

“Dedicated to Christina Li” is a narrative piece, reminiscent of Immortal Technique’s “You Never Know” and, while not as powerful as the latter song, is still impactful.  It’s a much more suburban version of the Technique classic, and it’s incredibly well done.  When listened to side-by-side, the two songs complement each other incredibly well as a telling juxtaposition of modern-day America.  I like to think this was intentional by Watsky, and if it was, it’s brilliant.  I’d love to hear the two on track together.  “The Legend of Hardhead Ned” is another narrative piece, and is perhaps a more competently crafted piece than “Dedicated to Christina Li.”  The narrative is a journey, to be sure, reflected in the backbeats, beginning with a sort of 70s aboriginal and morphing into a more modern electronic vibe.  Neither narrative piece is “The Hurricane,” but they tell their stories well.

That’s not to say Watsky is all highbrow and the record is flawless; he isn’t, and it isn’t.   “Ugly Faces” is a more traditionally crafted hip-hop song and is a bit more immature than the rest of the album.  It’s akin to Eminem on The Slim Shady LP when compared to The Marshall Mathers LP, only if the two were one album.   It’s way too sophomoric and doesn’t seem to ‘fit.’   It’s really the only misstep on really solid album.

Overall, Cardboard Castles isn’t your ‘typical’ hip hop album, but that’s expected from a suburban white boy that cut his teeth in slam poetry.  While his lyrics aren’t as aggressive as Immortal Technique or Mos Def, or as traditionally urban as someone like Grieves or Atmosphere, Watsky takes that tradition of intelligent lyricism and applies his own brand of humor to it.  Cardboard Castles would fit perfectly in the Rhymesayers canon next to those artists and, with the rise of artists like Mackelmore, will hopefully find some mainstream play as one of the new voices of intelligent hip-hop.