Before you even press play on Saaab Stories, you’re confronted by the unsettling dichotomy within Action Bronson: The Flushing rapper has a tremendous ear for beats, but he’s also tone deaf. Following full-length collaborations with Statik Selektah, Party Supplies, and Alchemist, Saaab Stories matches Bronson with Harry Fraud, a guy who can play both sides of the underground/Hot 97 divide with beats as rugged and plush as a sheepskin shearling. But at a time when Rick Ross’ verse on “U.O.E.N.O.”, Tyler, the Creator’s anti-feminist rant in Australia and certain lyrics on Yeezus have resulted in real backlash throughout a wide swath of hip-hop and an opportunity to ask tough questions about the genre’s pervasive attitudes towards women, Bronson chooses that artwork. Repellant as it is, it’s also not the least bit surprising: If you’ve heard more than five minutes of Action Bronson’s music, you’ll be aware of his attitude towards women, and Asian prostitutes in particular. So while his prodigious talents as a rapper ensure you might enjoy Saaab Stories on a purely musical level, it’s unlikely you’ll feel better when it’s over.
While Saaab stories is Bronson’s shortest official release, it’s his most diverse and sonically interesting. Fraud finds middle ground between the weeded-out YouTube scour of Blue Chips and the more traditional crate-digging on Rare Chandeliers– classic boom-bap on “Strictly 4 My Jeeps” and “No Time”, regal cloud-rap on “The Rockers”, simmered soul on “Triple Backflip”. Attending to the realities of Bronson’s ascendant career brings Saaab to a dead halt; “feat. Wiz Khalifa” is a passport stamp for an up-and-comer and an invitation for the listener to hit fast forward (“The Rockers”). Meanwhile, Prodigy is every bit as incapable of delivering a coherent rap these days, though it’s not for lack of trying.
The title of Saaab Stories is actually misleading for both parts of its double entendre. On prior highlights such as “Hookers at the Point” or “Bag of Money”, Bronson was a storyteller, whereas Saaab has a loose, performative aspect more along the lines of raunchy comedy; you can picture him leaned against a stool at a stand-up gig, or bragging over a brown bag lunch. If his appetites are base, his words make those dirtbag pursuits sound opulent as hell (“Amethyst on the knuckle/ On the arm, something Spanish with a bubble”). There’s an anti-clever cleverness to similes like “gold watch like I just retired” that hearken back to prime-era DOOM in terms of finding the most obvious likenesses that somehow never got used.
But the sheer percentage of lyrics purposefully written to degrade women is about the only thing that might leave a lasting impression. The narrowing of Bronson’s subject matter has resulted in an increasingly less satisfying artistic experience. Dr. Lecter and Blue Chips weren’t particularly relatable records, but even the smallest amount of emotional and personal scope worked towards distinguishing Bronson from his vocal doppelgänger Ghostface, creating a tangible persona that couldn’t be culled from the jaw-dropping lines about gourmet food and old school sneakers.
Gone is any counterbalance of self-deprecation (like Dr. Lecter’s fat-kid reminiscence “Ronnie Coleman”) or narrative to put the constant putdowns in context (“Thug Love Story 2012”); a line like “If I’m sick she’ll even clean me if I shit in my pants/ So I’m taking her to France with me” from “No Time” qualifies as chivalrous by comparison. And while getting two punchlines out of “Mutombo finger” in the same verse is pretty funny, the repurposing of old lyrics for the hooks on “Triple Bakckflip” and “The Rockers” gives the sense that Bronson might be running out of ideas.
Which makes his means of filling the void even sadder; more than ever, Bronson takes particular pleasure in biting down on a harshly pronounced bitch ad-lib or using a hook to reduce a woman to the sum of her orifices. You can generously read some of the actions of Tyler, the Creator or Kanye’s lyrics on Yeezus as purposeful trolling, or at least an incredibly awkward means of trying to start a conversation. Yet, Action Bronson only seeks to provoke indignation at Action Bronson, as if he harnesses the strength of conviction from vindicating those who find his off-record persona every bit as abhorrent. It was barely a year ago when Bronson was predicating his career on something other than being as unlikeable as possible, so there’s hope he isn’t too far gone. But on the grim, vulgar Saaab Stories, what you see is what you get.