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Paul Barman is a skinny, frumpily dressed Jewish guy with glasses, several days’ worth of stubble and an undergraduate degree in visual art from Brown University.
He’s also a rapper.
But when you hear the man’s music, his image starts to make sense. His sometimes off-rhythm lyrics are densely packed with internal rhymes, literary references, palindromes, double puns, political diatribes and a good helping of sex and fart humor.
Barman’s geeky subject matter and image contrast with a genre dominated by confident, street-smart types.
Some have accused him of being nothing more than a novelty act. Some say that the only thing you can learn from an MC Paul Barman song is that Paul Barman is a smart guy.
“There’s more going on than that,” Barman says. “I know it. I’ve read one review that said [my music] is too cerebral for anybody to enjoy, and I’ve read another review that said it won’t make you think, but it’s a damn good ride.”
Barman’s lyrics are responsible for these opposing viewpoints. It doesn’t get much more cerebral than the shout-out in “Bleeding Brain Grow” on the recent album Paullelujah!, his first LP: “Eve, Mika, RZA, Evil JD, Nasir is Osiris, and J-live, AZ, Rakim, Cormega, Cage, Mr. OC: I’m anomie. I, mon ami.”
And it definitely doesn’t get much more sophomoric than the cut “Burping and Farting,” on which Barman raps, “Gas burps from fast slurps and come back in blast / chirps through the esophagus / It smells like a sarcophagus.”
Barman says he often constructs songs using isolated rhymes he discovers at the oddest of times.
“Well, it used to be just trying to think of the illest rhymes that I possibly could,” he says. “For example, I was bagging change the other night, and while I was walking to the bank to get more penny papers, I thought of ‘My pickle pole was harder than a nickel roll.’”
But these days, Barman is less likely to let rhyme dictate content. Amid the rapid-fire wordplay and locker-room humor on Paullelujah!, he speaks extensively of political issues, a topic he currently calls his “highest interest.”
But some listeners are hesitant to take Barman’s politics seriously. On Paullelujah!, “Anarchist Bookstore Part 1,” where he asks “Will Barnes & Noble harm the global? / Will Amazon com be ’round when grandma’s gone mom?,” is followed by “Burping and Farting.”
Even within the political songs themselves, Barman uses over-the-top rhymes, silly similes and character voices.
“Anyone who would object to an element of humor in the midst of something serious better be reading heavy-duty theory and nothing else,” Barman says. “If anything, I think I’ve made a mistake by being too serious. Then you begin to feel preachy, and that’s even more selfish than talking about yourself.”
But Barman says he does take his politics seriously.
“I might change my mind day to day,” he says, “but the content of my lyrics, you know, I would vote for them if they were running.”
Barman says he’s hesitant to gauge the impact of his political songs.
“How effective those songs are is totally a question mark,” he says. “Just like how effective it is to march in a rally. It’s more effective than not marching in a rally.”
Not all of Barman’s goals are as lofty as his political ones, but he says he doesn’t buy into the money-equals-success mentality of the commercial rap world.
“My ultimate goal is to make the best songs that I can, and learn and survive,” he says. “Selling records helps those things happen, and being well-known sort of helps that.”
Barman’s down-to-earth attitude was pretty much all he had going for him when he performed at TT the Bear’s Place in Central Square last Thursday.
The guy operating the turntables, who is also his tour manager, seemed to have quite limited knowledge of how to use them, and Barman had to go over to the mixer a few times to turn knobs himself. Songs either ended too soon or started too late, and the set was a choppy mess.
Barman’s charisma saved the concert from disaster. During the show, he launched into tangents about cartoon characters, sketched two female crowd members while performing “I’m Fricking Awesome” and engaged the crowd with constant banter.
Barman’s soft-spoken, conversational style is a striking change from the hype yelling of most emcees. But it still can foster the same sense of community among audience members.
During an improvised blues interlude at his Middle East show last December, he invited the crowd to throw out topics.
When one of the drunken members of the opening act yelled out “I hate Italians,” Barman hung his head and said, “Can I please get a little love in here?”
The crowd was with him.
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