“Mr. Wonderful” oozes bravado. For fans of Action Bronson—the large, boisterous former gourmet chef—this should come as no surprise. On his psychedelia-infused major label debut, Bronson tackles many themes he has addressed in his past work: food, New York (he’s a proud native of Queens), and the extravagances of his lifestyle. The album isn’t standard fare—it’s a mature exploration of his new fame. Bronson raps, in his distinct New York accent, about the struggle to reconcile his roots with his newfound wealth as well as his struggles with relationships and addiction. Here, he’s more serious and raps less about food than in his numerous EPs, but he’s still the same goofily nick-named “Bronsolino” that fans have come to love. He breaches this new territory with aplomb and balances honest, personal themes of internal struggle with his carefree attitude and incisive wordplay, resulting in a successful execution of an ambitious album.
The album “Mr. Wonderful” stumbles to a start with “Brand New Car”—Bronson purposefully retains errors from the recording process as a means of welcoming his listeners to his rough production and vocals. Over an energetic sample from Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar,” Bronson, amidst the intentional blemishes, asserts his dominant presence with swaggering verses. The song is not his strongest, but through its persistent energy it sets the tone for the remainder of the work.
Bronson quickly recovers, and by “Terry,” the album’s third track, finds the tone that works best for him. In his lyrics, he strikes a perfect balance between his honesty—from the first utterance of “Don’t hurt me again,” he establishes his affecting vulnerability—and his familiar carefree love of luxury (“Smoke good, fuck, eat, drink / Drive nice car, wear all green mink” he repeats in the outro). The relaxed but persistent jazz guitar alongside his beats keeps the work focused and moving forward until it slips into a dreamy soundscape for the last minute. At this point, collaborator Chauncy Sherod eerily sings, “What are we waiting for?” leading into one of the strongest tracks on the album: “Actin’ Crazy.” The tight, mesmerizing beats from producers 40 and Omen perfectly complement the aggressive Bronson and keep the hook engaging without sacrificing experimental instrumentation.
By far the most fascinating ambition of the album is the psychedelia and prog-rock- influenced suite sparked by “THUG LOVE STORY 2017 THE MUSICAL (Interlude),” which includes “City Boy Blues,” “A Light in the Addict,” and the single “Baby Blue” (feat. Chance the Rapper). The first two tracks flow together seamlessly, in a production style reminiscent of early Pink Floyd, and describe feelings of depression and loneliness. In “City Boy Blues,” which is entirely sung as opposed to rapped, Bronson describes his experiences with sycophantic followers, singing, “She only wants money from me / Love from somebody else.” “A Light in the Addict” is similarly dark, as Bronson confronts his mortality (“Thinkin’ if I jump, will I feel it when I hit the ground?”). By far the sharpest track in the trio is “Baby Blue,” which is stylistically less experimental and far more representative of Bronson’s traditional subject matter. The song features an infectiously catchy and surprisingly soulful hook from Bronson himself and a compelling verse from Chance the Rapper. The strongest aspect of “Baby Blue,” however, is the tight, piano-driven beat from Mark Ronson. The “musical” is ultimately engaging, but the stylistic asymmetry abandons the experimental momentum built up in the first two tracks of the “THUG LOVE STORY 2017 THE MUSICAL” suite, sacrificing the potential payoff for the guaranteed successes of the “Baby Blue.” It’s a sensible but anticlimactic choice.
The album’s biggest problems are its wavering consistency in production style and quality. Songs vacillate between the extremes of the highly polished arena rap of “Actin Crazy” and “Baby Blue” and the rough, blues instrumentation on “The Rising” and “City Boy Blues.” Both styles work for Bronson, but the lack of commitment to either disrupts the flow of the album. Some pieces, particularly stripped-down antagonism of “Falconry” and the hair metal-inspired “Only in America,” appear to come out of nowhere, without bringing anything new to the table. At the beginning of “Only in America,” Bronson hypes himself up, saying, “I’m focused, man,” as though he isn’t quite convinced. His own uncertainty extends to the listener, and the song falls flat.
Although the album is at times uneven, Bronson’s ambitions pay off remarkably. His potent self-confidence keeps “Mr. Wonderful” interesting, even at its most distracted. The strength of the singles and focused experimentalism result in a cohesive and engaging work. On the hook of the final track, “Easy Rider,” Bronson triumphantly and knowingly repeats “[I] ride the Harley into the sunset.” Action Bronson’s motorcycle might be a ridiculously overblown image, but the very fact that he embraces his own maximalism makes “Mr. Wonderful” a worthwhile ride.
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