Keep the customers coming around/If you’re smart, then you better start dumbing it down. That’s the chorus of “Dumb It Down,” ostensibly a commentary on modern rap, from Taste the Secret, the latest from Long Beach, California, hip-hop trio Ugly Duckling. Don’t say anything too profound, the chant continues. Dumb. It. Down.
It’s a funny line coming from Ugly Duckling — hmm-funny in this case, not ha-ha-funny. UD has never exactly trafficked in extraordinary profundity or even, for that matter, in pedestrian profundity. To date, its lyrics have focused mainly on high-fluff ’80s pop culture, from The Karate Kid to Zaxxon to Billy Crystal’s Fernando Llamas (“Ju … look … mahvelous“), to cite just twenty seconds of one song from its 2000 full-length debut, Journey to Anywhere.
But that’s not a knock. UD’s good-natured breeziness has always been its greatest strength. Fact is, these three dorky white kids from Snoop’s old ‘hood rap about pop culture piffle about as well as anyone ever has, with clever, genial, funny rhymes wrapped in clever, genial, old-school beats and samples. Think Native Tongues as interpreted by Eugene Levy.
On Secret, Andy Cooper, Dizzy Dustin and Young Einstein don’t just acknowledge their utter lack of street cred; they wear it like a paper hat, creating a theme album not about guns or dope but about … fast food? Specifically, the album centers on Meat Shake, the fictional Long Beach blended-dinner joint where the members claim to have worked in their adolescence. On-message songs and faux jingles mix with man-on-the-street testimonials (“Meat to the shizzake!”) and running skits, but the album’s real highlight isn’t the comedy but rather the marvelous crate-digging talent of DJ Einstein, which sustains Cooper and Dustin even when they cough out an occasional talent-show hook. (The amateurish refrain of “Abigail Silk” only undermines Einstein’s smooth “Love Supreme” riff.)
But the “Silk” schlock is a rare faceplant for the two MCs. On the flip side, “Opening Act” bull’s-eyes the hapless life of unknown tour support (Some people even poke fun and they laugh/But most just drink and smoke in the back), and “La Revolucáon” daydreams about a guerrilla insurgence to depose hip-hop’s reigning thugs. (Yes, armed revolution to repo rap from the gangstas. They may not have much in the way of profundity, but UD has irony in spades.)
This is a silly album — no surprise there. What might surprise is how well it holds together, even on repeated listenings. Yes, UD leans on its jokes like a crutch, but program out the yuks and you’ve still got a disc’s worth of entertaining hip-hop. Taste the Secret is the album DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince would have made thirteen years ago, if only they’d thought of it. And no, that’s not a knock, either.