Never Better

4 out of 5 stars

Minnesota’s twin cities harbor a well-kept secret in the music biz: They are home to a stable of incredible hip-hop artists. The local Rhymesayers record label has become a major force in the genre, hosting many of the region’s independent stars as well as big-name acts like MF Doom. P.O.S. (supported by “Doomtree,” his posse of producers and MCs) is one of the label’s wunderkinds, boasting inventive production and intelligent rhymes flavored with a punk sensibility. Though his sound is exotic, the lyrics dealing with frigid weather and empty wallets on Never Better should resonate with Michiganders.

“Savion Glover” is an effective capsule showcase for P.O.S.’s talents as an MC. The sock is backed by up-tempo bass drum bounce and old-school turntablism. Focused equally on style and substance, he intones blazing couplets like, “But smokin’ on kush made cats so apathetic / Can’t beat ‘em with our bats / we join’ em and spit the ethic.”

Other tracks like “Grave Shovel Let’s Go” place greater emphasis on virtuosic beats. Thundering bass hits, claps and a bevy of carefully tuned hi-hats and cymbals are orchestrated into a groove-heavy rhythm tinged with subtle melodies. During the chorus, an eerie sci-fi synth slithers up and down the scale, adding to the melancholy vibe.

Shifting moods, the follow-up “Goodbye” feels like a radiant blast of summer heat with its fiery R&B vocal samples and trumpeting organs. A funky yet humble bassline provides the track with a bubbly counterpoint, which P.O.S. uses as a springboard for lyrics less gloomy than his usual doom-saying fever-dreams. In the song, the wordsmith warns against being blindsided by the American Dream: “All my friends think green / but can’t afford to live it / can’t ignore the cynics / can’t explore the gimmicks / can’t report the dividends / limited only by the need to stay fed.”

In a similar vein, “Low Light Low Life” uses brass and brisk hi-hat hits to power another soul-infused success. Doomtree collaborator Dessa lends her bold voice and keen insight with blazing rhymes: “It seems we’ve fallen out of favor / the era ended on us / now the money’s just paper / the houses all haunted / We had a hell of a run before it caught up / for all the corners cut we got an avalanche of sawdust.” Other cuts draw on P.O.S.’s punk background — see the bawdy smoke-damaged refrain of “Terrorish,” the clattering chaos of “The Basics (Alright)” and the autobiographical growing-up-punk tale of “Out of Category.”

Even when P.O.S. falls short of his own high standards as MC, he’s still intriguing to listen to. His rallying cries to action are brought to life by his defiant, triumphant voice, and the freewheeling beats (often provided by other Doomtree members) never grow stale or fade into the background. Variety is also a boon to the disc, as sonics and themes keep changing; P.O.S. is careful to vary his flow as well, ranging from rapid-fire volleys of free associations to poised and studied sermons. Never Better surges with a rare vitality and vision that validates its pretentious title.

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