Releasing a rap album the week after Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is either an act of profound courage or profound insanity, which, hypothetically, makes Action Bronson the perfect rapper to do it. In 2015 the world of hip-hop is (once again) the Lamar Estate, and everyone else is renting, precariously. It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Mr. Wonderful: Action Bronson’s major-label debut, an album years in the coming, had pegged itself to a March 24 release date well before Kendrick announced that To Pimp a Butterfly would be arriving March 23, only to accidentally appear a week ahead of schedule. Welcome to the music biz, Action—see what you’ve been missing?
Action Bronson has, in fact, been around for so long that it’s almost impossible to believe that Mr. Wonderful is his first real album. Bronson arrived on the scene in 2011 with the self-released Dr. Lecter and an origin story worthy of a superhero: The Queens-bred son of an Albanian immigrant, Bronson worked as a gourmet chef until a broken leg felled him from the kitchen and awakened his dormant vocation as a rapper. In the past four years, Bronson has released a formidable oeuvre of mixtapes and guested on tracks with seemingly everyone in rap, all while carving out his own industry of zany, enormous eccentricity. He’s rapped at a British nursing home; he’s hosted his own culinary show, titled “Fuck, That’s Delicious”; he’s made online tutorials for niche hallucinogens; he’s turned his stages into impromptu MMA showcases, then discussed his moves on ESPN.
He is also, it must be emphasized, a phenomenal rapper, a breathtaking mix of skill, style, and raw charisma. He’s often pegged as a Ghostface Killah sound-alike, but the resemblance is primarily timbral and mostly incidental. Bronson’s flow is more measured and spatial than the cyclonic Ghostface, his concerns more dada and surreal. His rugged percussiveness bears strong traces of Queens legend Kool G Rap, while his fixations on uneven rhyme schemes recall the Bronx’s own lunatic laureate, Kool Keith. This widely shared freestyle from Funkmaster Flex’s show earlier this year is stunning in its headphone-dropping intensity, its command of rhythm and meter, its far-flung invocations of parrots, NATO occupations, Carmen Sandiego.
All of which makes Mr. Wonderful a fun album that’s also slightly disappointing, simply because we know the capabilities of its creator and they’re never quite fully realized here. Mr. Wonderful isn’t phoned-in; if anything, it’s undone by an excess of effort, starting with the production, which is overly enamored with eclecticism. The album’s opener, “Brand New Car,” features a Billy Joel sample which Bronson and producer Mark Ronson allegedly went to great lengths to clear, and the cacophonous result makes one wish they had less resolve. “Only in America” features trashy hair-metal guitars and almost works until collapsing under a pointless, stupidly amateurish piano solo. Bronson has an abiding interest in schlock, but on Mr. Wonderful it never really rises above fish-in-a-barrel jokiness: Making fun of bad music has its pleasures, but not as many as just listening to good music.
Mr. Wonderful works best when it takes the talents of its maker a bit more seriously than he purports to take himself. The carnivalesque “Falconry” features inspired turns by Bronson and Queens associate Meyhem Lauren, who might nab the best line on the whole album (“I’m New York before it turned into a bike lane”). The Alchemist-produced “Terry” nicks its hook from Slick Rick’s classic “Teenage Love,” and spins a loose, evocative tale of heartbreak and melancholy. The album’s two best tracks are “Easy Rider,” which finds Bronson rapping over a track that conjures the psychedelic West of its namesake, and “Actin’ Crazy,” a tour de force featuring a wheezing, ethereal beat from Noah “40” Shebib, further evidence that Drake’s right-hand man is one of the most impressive creative forces in contemporary music. And Mr. Wonderful contains no shortage of verbal virtuosity: “Pump the bass in the trunk, shit rattles like a baby hand/ Except this toy cost 80 grand” raps Bronson on “Easy Rider,” a couplet that moves from a stereo to an infant to a luxury car in the span of a few syllables. Or from “Actin’ Crazy:” “I’m in a Humvee, lookin’ like a young me/ now all these motherfuckers wanna be chubby,” a hilarious, nutso mix of vanity and self-effacement.
But of the four tracks mentioned above, three have already been released as singles; “Easy Rider” is 7 months old. Add the recently released “Baby Blue” to the mix and nearly a full third of Mr. Wonderful has already come out before the album was released, a weird and sloppy rollout. The unintended effect is that Mr. Wonderful feels fragmentary and occasionally superfluous—qualities we might normally associate with a mixtape, ironic given that the best of Bronson’s own mixtape work—2012’s fantastic Rare Chandeliers, for example, or the two-part Blue Chips series—feels more assured and unified than Mr. Wonderful.
All of this suggests that Action Bronson doesn’t quite know how to make an album yet, which is both understandable and somewhat unfortunate. Mr. Wonderful feels alternately incoherent and excessively fussed-over, like a concept album about an album searching for a concept. And some of the tracks just fail as ideas: “City Boy Blues” is Bronson’s quixotic and unnecessary attempt at blues singing, while “Baby Blue”—a collaboration with Chance the Rapper, and another song that features Bronson crooning—is undone by retrograde misogyny that makes its moments of cleverness feel all the more smug.
One of the reasons people who write about music are so drawn to To Pimp a Butterfly is that it’s a capital-W Work, it sprawls and reaches and takes chances and refuses to compromise or condescend: It ennobles us, and flatters us for celebrating it. Mr. Wonderful feels overly hedged by irony, like the precocious kid who can’t quite outgrow his tendency to be the class clown. It’s both too slight and too safe, which is a drag since no one would accuse Action Bronson of being either. And make no mistake, you can make bonkers gonzo rap that’s also great art: Kool Keith has done it, so has Ghostface, so has Lil Wayne. Hell, so has Eminem, a figure Bronson is almost certainly (and rightfully) sick of being compared to. Action Bronson isn’t any of these people and he’s definitely not Kendrick Lamar, but he’s got great art in him, too—Mr. Wonderful just isn’t quite it, not yet.