Oldominion we know; they’re the vast, multiethnic crew of MCs, DJs and producers (close to two dozen of ’em at last count) holding down the Pacific Northwest’s thriving alt-hip-hop scene. And we know Onry Ozzborn and Barfly — they’re two of those two dozen, with the better-established Onry’s 2002 release Alone having reached as high as No. 2 on CMJ’s hip-hop chart last year. Here’s what we don’t know: Who the hell is Norman?
On the surface, it’s simple — Norman is the alias under which Onry and Barfly have released their first collaboration, Polarity. But there’s more to it with this concept album. Norman, it seems, is a misfit extraordinaire. Bullied by his pops, battered by life, he’s not just a loser; he’s the Everyloser. Seven tracks into Polarity, he’s an English footballer being menaced by hooligans; five tracks after that, he’s drinking the Kool-Aid at Jonestown. And by the time “Rockstar Fraternity Initiation” rolls around, Norman’s got a gun to his own head: Bradley Nowell’s veins/Elvis’ migraines/And Buddy Holly’s plane/And Cobain’s brain stains, he shouts. I’m outta here. Then again, as Onry and Barfly insist on “One Man Band,” the album’s opener: I am you, you are me/I’m Norman.
Hmm. Not so sure about that. Maybe they’re Norman, but you’re sure as hell not.
This identification with the Dylan Klebolds of the world is perhaps not surprising — Oldominon as a crew has always been preoccupied with the dark side, and Polarity boasts plenty of the house-of-horrors production for which it’s known. What’s surprising is just how engaging that production is; rarely have such spooky beats been such head-nodding fun.
Self-described suburban kids whose closest childhood brush with gang-banging was the movie Colors, Onry and Barfly’s lyrics sidestep most of mainstream hip-hop’s standard themes. (When’s the last time you heard references to Fawlty Towers, Fernando Valenzuela and Rancid in the same rap song?) Polarity does feature plenty of the anti-bling, cred-grabbing posturing that’s long been a prereq for alt-hip-hop; only, in these guys’ hands, it’s far less clumsy or preachy than expected. You’re the sperm donor, we raised your kid, they spit on “Hip-Hop.Ver.1.7,” their response to the East Coast’s self-appointed keepers of hip-hop authenticity. Where the fuck you been?/Practicing dressing up hard?/Doing crab-scratches and backspins? Later, on “Bling-Kong,” the boys break out the mockery again, rolling not in a Benz or a Hummer but in a ’73 El Dorado tricked out with bull’s horns on the hood and a beer tap behind the license plate. Who’s Norman? Don’t know. But we do know this: Whoever he is, the kid’s got talent.