It is hard not to like Arian Arslani. Since the gourmet chef-turned-rapper adopted the stage name Action Bronson in 2008, the Queens, New York native has released some of the most outrageous, profane, nonsensical and hilarious hip hop in the new millennium. Bronson is the rap world’s Santa Claus: both figures are amiable, Rubenesque, intensely bearded, have penchants for wearing caps, and give gifts on an annual basis; the exception is that Bronson’s presents are mixtapes, EPs, and videos.
The EP Blue Chips and its sequel Blue Chips 2 garnered much attention and acclaim, and Bronson’s first studio album Dr. Lecter released on the minor label Fine Fabric Delegates. Action Bronson joined both Atlantic and Vice Records in 2012, splitting his time with live performances, releasing EPs, and hosting an online Vice program aptly titled, F***, That’s Delicious; and all along the way, he has been making friends with some of the big shots in hip hop production, putting all the pieces together for a huge gift for fans.
Bronson announced the album’s title last year on his Twitter account, and it became clear that Mr. Wonderful, which began production in early 2014, would be a meticulously constructed piece of work. At first listen, the showmanship and extravagance that Bronson famously employs on previous releases are noticeably upgraded, with sonic waves of flair and braggadocio emanating from each track. It is obvious that the Queens rapper took advantage of the immense talent he brought to Mr. Wonderful: master producers Mark Ronson, The Alchemist, and 40 all had their platinum-tinged hands on Bronson’s project.
[su_pullquote align=”left”]”Unlike his previous EPs and mixtapes, Bronson tries his hand at singing multiple times on Mr. Wonderful.”[/su_pullquote]The first track, “Brand New Car,” opens with jaunty, ragtime piano chords and Bronson singing, “I got a brand new car/I got a jazz guitar”. The short verse is a surprising interpolation of the Billy Joel song, “Zanzibar”; apparently, Joel allowed Bronson to use the lyrics after Ronson appealed to the Piano Man himself, adding some entertaining lore to the LP’s inaugural musical notes. “Brand New Car” introduces the tone of Mr. Wonderful in a somewhat unorthodox fashion, with Bronson false-starting and eventually ending the track ignominiously, frustrated with his inability to perform to his standards. The track has a concept album aura, and it’s evident that the usual Bronson lyrical themes of gastronomy and irreverence will be influenced by Bronson’s high major label expectations.
For the heights that Mr. Wonderful attempts to reach, Bronson sounds hungry to reach them, spitting smart and complex verses in his idiosyncratic flow. Bronson’s brash and raspy delivery is similar to legendary East Coast rapper, Ghostface Killah, and people have compared Bronson’s style to his fellow New York counterpart; however, Mr. Wonderful never sounds like a rip-off of a GFK album, and the sincerity and respect with which Bronson carries himself absolves him from accusations of audio plagiarism. When he is rapping, Bronson usually keeps the same cadence throughout the track, applying a generous New York inflection on each word and metaphor. The song “Falconry” features some vociferous rhymes and references: Bronson name-drops Yanni, compares himself to Jurassic Park, and orders his detractors to eat squid ink soup. After a quality appearance by rapper Chauncy Sherod, Bronson delivers a spoken word example of a police report for a street corner drug deal; the contempt in his voice takes aim at racism and elitism, ending the song with an angry, “But, who’re you?” It is quite good.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]”…one may need a Bronson-sized bowl of fortitude to enjoy his caterwauling.”[/su_pullquote]Other prominent lyrical themes deal with family, particularly with regards to Bronson’s mother, who he frequently refers to as an inspiration. Bronson is magnanimous with adoration on the single, “Actin Crazy”, where he explains to his apparently concerned mother as to why he publicly engages in ostentatious behavior. The song appears genuine, but the downtempo production misses its intended target and Bronson’s overly-saccharine chorus of “Why you think I’m actin’ crazy/You know I’m still your little baby” comes off as awkward. The interlude cut in the middle of the album “THUG LOVE STORY 2017 THE MUSICAL” is also strange, detailing an interaction where Bronson requests a presumably older and wizened gentleman to sing an old blues song. The man concurs, and proceeds to sing for two minutes in and out of key. One can extrapolate that this track fits in with the overall narrative of Bronson’s path to rap stardom, but regardless, most people will see it as a throwaway cut. Take it or leave it.
[su_pullquote align=”left”]”…think of Chet Faker’s slurring croon…but imagine that Faker’s re-recording it in the Sahara Desert after days without water.”[/su_pullquote]Unlike his previous EPs and mixtapes, Bronson tries his hand at singing multiple times on Mr. Wonderful. While this album requires a deal of patience due to the bombastic production and jazzy instrumentation, one may need a Bronson-sized bowl of fortitude to enjoy his caterwauling. The song “A Light in the Addict” contains some really great upright bass lines, hard bop piano chords, and Bronson’s competent rapping skills in the first verse. He raps about stress and depression, and it is convincing enough to add another layer of emotion to the album. And then Bronson starts singing the chorus. To get an idea of Bronson’s vocal capabilities, think of Chet Faker’s slurring croon off his album Built on Glass, but imagine that Faker’s re-recording it in the Sahara Desert after days without water. For better or for worse, that is what Bronson sounds like when he tries to swing it with the singers. His normally rasp-choked rapping voice sounds dry and one dimensional when he tries elevating it to hit higher notes and vibrato, and Bronson has to rely on the listener’s resolve and taste to ensure that they won’t skip the track.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]”…some will enjoy Bronson’s sung verses, and others will simply hit the skip button.”[/su_pullquote]Optimistically, his voice is bluesy and soulful, and after a few listens, songs like “Baby Blue” and “City Boy Blues” fit in well with the rest of the album. The musical accompaniment complements Bronson’s fledgling vocal abilities perfectly, adding funk, soul, and even wailing rock guitar instrumentals for support (the guitar solo on the closing track “Easy Rider” is tremendous). Mr. Wonderful will polarize listeners: some will enjoy Bronson’s sung verses, and others will simply hit the skip button.
All things considered, Mr. Wonderful is a powerful album. It is a glitzy statement, full of kitsch, arrogance, love, sadness, and most importantly, cuisine jokes. In spite of the magnitude of this major label debut, Bronson remains insouciant, cracking wise and laughing throughout the 49 minute long play. The production crew, featured artists, and musicians collaborate splendidly, amounting to only a smattering of weak moments on an otherwise sparkling display of bacchanal hip hop. Mr. Wonderful is a challenging listen, but for those who are willing to try what Bronson is making, the man will cook for you all night.
Mr. Wonderful was released on March 23 Atlantic and Vice Records