As mixtapes have gradually become commonplace and necessary within the modern rap mosaic, artists have risen who find their sweet spot easier on free releases, perhaps relieved from pressure, and produce what becomes their best work. Maybe it started with Lil Wayne and the Dedication and Da Drought series’, though Wayne was always a superstar suited for the biggest of stages. Meek Mill is likely better known for his Dreamchasers series than his one solo album and Mac Miller used mixtapes to establish his voice and then rediscover it.
And then there’s Action Bronson, who just dropped Blue Chips 2, his sixth release since 2011, which, like the others, was not a major label album. The tape, released last Friday and his second outing with producer Party Supplies is camp. It is pulp. It is simultaneously cheap and rich. It is the vintage lamp you find in a thrift store, made of brass and stained glass, so incredibly time stamped and loosely built, that it is timeless and perfect.
Action, as happily rotund a rapper since Big Pun, is the opposite of self-serious. He’s currently growing his hair and beard out, both a cider shade of red, for what seems like the pure humor of it. It is a frat stunt from a nearly 30-year-old man who knows how fun and liberating frat stunts can be when your job permits. Rap allows a good deal of latitude for jokesters, and Action gets high milage frequently.
In this role, rap convention and tradition is useless. His EP with Harry Fraud, Saaab Stories, released in June, included what was Bronson’s closest attempt at a single, “Strictly 4 My Jeeps.” The song was fun, energetic, and simple enough in structure to familiarize the Queens rapper with first time listeners. The EP was so so, a disjointed effort that fit Bronson too loosely. It was a step down from last November’s Rare Chandeliers, honestly, which was a step down from the first Blue Chips.
Starring Nick Nolte and Shaquille O’Neal, “Blue Chips” hit theaters on Feb. 18 1994. Bronson would have been 10. Party Supplies, 6. The film followed college basketball coach Pete Bell, who, after his first losing season, is feeling the heat, and contemplates buying the top recruits, or blue chips, from that year’s graduating high school class. For director William Friedkin, it was an opportunity to return to his earlier success. His 1971 film “The French Connection” won him the Best Direcetor Oscar. He followed that up in 1973 with a little film called “The Excorcist.” Nearly 20 years later, his consistency had fallen off, “To Live and Die in L.A.” his only critical smash.
Rotten Tomatoes calculates a score of 37% for “Blue Chips,” a deceivingly low number considering the film’s cult status and perceptive take on the corrupt nature of collegiate athletics. Here’s Rogert Ebert’s take: “What Friedkin brings to the story is a tone that feels completely accurate; the movie is a morality play, told in the realistic, sometimes cynical terms of modern high-pressure college sports.”
He liked it and it’s not hard to see why. Nolte is a force at the film’s center, incensed by the desire to win and keep his integrity. A 23-year-old Shaq embodies charisma. He’s light on his feet, a gold hoop earring dangling, an enormous grin spanning the width of his face. He is Adonis-like, and the film acts as a capsule for the phenom that he was at that time. That his character’s first name is Neon symbolizes how larger than life and out there Shaq really was.
The cover of this first Blue Chips tape has Party Supplies filling in for Shaq, dunking as he does on the movie’s poster. Calling upon the film as inspiration could simply mean the producer and rapper combo are the rap game’s blue chippers (Penny Hardaway also stars in the film, the guard to Shaq’s center, word to the Orlando Magic), but what fun is shallow thematic analysis?
As with the cover, the only other reference to the movie on that first tape is direct and clear. The song “Blue Chips” begins with a clip from the film, a final scene in which Ed O’Neil’s character, a suspicious reporter, asks Nick Nolte whether or not the school offered a car to Neon. It’s where Nolte snaps, or rather the opportunity he was hoping for to be able to snap and set himself free.
The straight reference is indicative of where Bronson was at that time. He had to establish himself more, make declarations like “Don’t ever say my fucking music sounds like Ghost shit,” on “Ron Simmons.” He was focusing more on achievement than concept, and for that reason, Blue Chips became a benchmark for Bronson.
Fast forward to Blue Chips 2 though, and the references and shout outs are more subtle; he has become an artist firm in his stance and capable of building legend rather than familiarity.
The cover is another movie pull, Bronson drawn as Bell yelling at a referee, as Bell does often. The few commercials throughout the tape add to the bizarity and randomness of it all, and while Bronson said they were just a stoned addition, one in particular serves as a “Blue Chips” call out. Many coaches appear in the film, including Bobby Knight, who is heard at the end of “It Concerns Me” as part of an Applebee’s spot. (Rick Pitino is also in the film, of whom Action compares himself to on Chance the Rapper’s “NaNa.”)
Elsewhere, there are references to California (“It’s a southern Cali summer”), perhaps suprising from a New York artist except that the school in “Blue Chips” is a stand in for UCLA. The connections can be pulled even thinner, like earlier on “It Concerns Me” when he raps, “Dreams to ball, but I ain’t talking ’bout Seton Hall,” or on “The Don’s Cheek,” with “I need that good green.” The latter could easily be seen as a commonplace money line, but in the context of “Blue Chips,” where a player politely asks for $30,000, and whispers of previous point shaving haunt Bell, it takes on a slightly more specific meaning. There is a whole shady aspect to the movie, which Action and Party Supplies touch on in a hilarious trailer for the tape.
What fills the body of Blue Chips 2 out though, are the additional references, allusions, and samplings. The mixtape is the most fun because it makes little sense and there’s little need for it to. It reminds of “Pulp Fiction,” and “Grindhouse,” and “Machete.” The pieces are thrown together without precision because that is the point. When Bronson false starts the same verse multiple times on “9.24.13,” it’s equivalent to a visible boom mic or a slightly out of focus shot. Dropping phrases like “Barbara Walters wax” and closing a song with a sample played backward add to the notion. A good time is the only goal here, not perfection. Consider, also, that Blue Chips 2 features a song called “Jackson & Travolta” and elsewhere, a clip of Charlie Sheen, who is in “Machete Kills,” in theaters now.
Bronson has collaborated with many producers over the past few years, all of whom are incredibly skilled. But it’s obvious that he has a special connection with Party Supplies more so than Statik Selektah, or The Alchemist, or Harry Fraud. A fellow editor here at the office, who spent time with the producer for a Rhythm Roulette video, noted that his personality so easily matches Bronson’s. They get each other, are peers and kindred spirits, where as other dynamics might exist with the other three.
There are many rappers who occupy a slick gangster persona, or one of intellectual backpacker, or stone cold killer. Bronson is none of those. He is Austin Powers, not James Bond, showing up in a silk bathrobe to better lounge and piss on others. Party Supplies gets that, assembling a collection of beats both solid and silly. The ’80s juke box that is “Contemporary Man,” is a high wire act, allowing a man whose tounge is far more nimble than his feet to walk a tight rope and never flinch.
We first defined Bronson by his food raps because it helped both separate and clasify him. But the descriptive dishes and plates are only one dimension of the experience. A meal is about ambiance, company, and visuals. Who is sitting across the table, what is playing on the television, what a cell phone ring might signify; it all matters. What Bronson does on Blue Chips 2 is most effectively bring us into his world of alternate, nonsensical, colorful realities. Two lines in particular, off “Rolling Thunder,” smash sports, pop culture, and geographical references in such a Bronson-esque way that they might as well be the opening to his Wikipedia page. “The rap Dennis the Menance with Dennis Rodman in Venice inventive / She took a bump then started dancing like Elaine Benes.” It’s not just an image that he evokes, it’s multiple images superimposed on top of one other. Fuck what it means or if it’s smart, it’s fun and ridiculous and, yeah, inventive; lanes that Bronson so adequately commands throughout Blue Chips 2.