Happy 10th Anniversary to P.O.S’ third studio album Never Better, originally released February 3, 2009.
There have been many examinations of the similarities between the hip-hop and punk genres. Both have been touted as the voices of the disenfranchised youth, both are known for their deep anti-authoritarian streaks, and both are recognized for their fiercely independent, DIY roots. Pioneering DJs and emcees have recounted how during hip-hop music’s early days, they attracted members of the punk scene to venues across New York City. Some of those earlier punk rockers become important hip-hop acolytes; Beastie Boys notoriously got their start as the punk band The Young and The Useless.
That being said, melding punk and hip-hop music has always been a dicey proposition. The Beastie Boys included punk influenced offerings on their albums throughout the ’90s, but they were always played as straight punk, rather than hip-hop/punk mash-ups. Meanwhile, the Rap/Rock era of the late ’90s and early ’00s produced some spectacularly awful music and was the worst thing to happen to hip-hop since hip-house.
Somehow, Stefon “P.O.S” Alexander figured out how to make a punk-influenced hip-hop album work with Never Better, his third album, released 10 years ago. The Minnesota-based emcee, a member of the Doomtree collective, uses the album to mesh the sentiments often found in punk rock with his hip-hop sensibilities. It’s a towering artistic achievement and was one of the best albums of 2009.
The difference with Never Better is what P.O.S brought to the table in terms of skill and genuine expertise. Though he’d been in numerous punk groups growing up, he first became known as an emcee in the early ’00s with the Doomtree collective. After releasing Ipecac Neat in 2004 independently through Doomtree’s label, he was snapped up by Rhymesayers, who re-released the album a year later. In 2006, P.O.S released Audition, one of the best hip-hop albums of the ’00s, where he began to flirt with introducing punk rock elements into his music.
On Never Better, P.O.S dives right into the deep end with a rougher edge than most hip-hop heads are used to listening to. The punk sensibilities are frequently present, but the tracks remain, at their core, hip-hop.
With his lyrics, P.O.S explores complex issues of identity, pain, and self-discovery, and does so using an equally complex set of flows, deliveries, and vocabulary. Though I hesitate to make the comparison, because it’s such a loaded one, P.O.S at times comes across as a vastly more listenable version of post-Encore Eminem. P.O.S has all the technical skill but none of the juvenile subject matter. The complicated wordplay, but always with an underlying sense of purpose. He can express anger, but doesn’t rely on shouting harangues or funny accents. He conveys the pathos of someone who has struggled to find themselves, but none of the wallowing.
Never Better begins on a rugged note with “Let It Rattle.” The Lazerbeak-produced track slowly builds from the beginning, as the guitars and drums begin to churn with energy, before releasing into an aggression-filled zenith. As he raps, “They call me P.O.S, bold from the go to the goal / To them ice cold bones, freezing in that Minnesota snow / Heating up the winter with the flow / They make it rain, rain, rain go away, come again brave, or when you bring a bit to help us grow.”
“Drumroll,” the album’s second single, is most notable for its pounding nominal drum track, wailing guitars, and chant-like chorus. Songs like “Graves,” “Terrorish,” and “Get Smokes” all utilize a similar soundscape, each either invoking musical influences of local hardcore or featuring vocals from prominent punk artists.
Never Better continues to excel when it enters non-traditional music ground for hip-hop tracks. I’ve never been much of a fan of EDM or industrial music, but I must admit that P.O.S’ experiments with these influences in his music result in some of the album’s best tracks. “Purexed,” which flips from measured to hurried tempos at the drop of a hat, almost shimmers, as P.O.S waxes philosophical about living the most honest way possible, instead of putting on airs. Similarly, “The Basics” pairs blistering drums with distorted bass and pulsating vocals, as he explains how and he and the Doomtree crew are okay with not being radio darlings, more comfortable knowing that they can express themselves as they see fit.
The more boom-bap hip-hop entries on Never Better skew towards the more minimalist side of things. One such example is “Savion Glover,” a re-recorded and slightly remixed version of a song that originally appeared on Doomtree’s False Hopes (2007) compilation. P.O.S keeps things as simple as possible on the self-produced track, manipulating a couple of guitar notes and pairing them with a pounding rhythmic drum track and scratches by MIKE.
On the mic, P.O.S unleashes a rapid-fire stream of lyrics directed towards dissing the government, ravenous corporations, and the military industrial complex, rapping, “Man overboard with the same crap drown / Dehumanize communities like Black Hawk Down / They realize immunities and rape them towns / So we speak our minds so fluently with raw, rap sounds.” By the end of the track, he again leans into his punk influences, invoking a quote from Fugazi’s “Five Corporations,” repeating “This one’s ours, let’s take another.”
“Optimist (We Are Not For Them),” the album’s third single, utilizes an even more austere musical aesthetic. The “beat” is made up of hand-claps and percussion sounds that come from “playing” plastic cups, along with melancholy keys. In contrast, “Low Light Low Life,” a posse cut featuring Doomtree members Sims and Dessa, is a grander production, with all three advocating for the upheaval of the current power structure and an uprising of the people.
Never Better is at its most potent when P.O.S crafts rhymes about existing as an outsider and dealing with trauma. Although P.O.S speaks in the third person throughout “Out of Category,” the song feels deeply autobiographical. He speaks for the protagonist as he grows up in a poor single-parent home, grappling with his own identity. As he struggles to find common ground with kids of all races, he eventually finds solace in punk music.
“Been Afraid” is another powerfully poignant entry, as he relates the twin tales of a pair of damaged young teenagers, each coping with separate traumas and feeling isolated from the rest of their worlds. P.O.S is masterful in how he details how the young man and woman find solace in each other’s love and company, each becoming “a piece that fits.”
Things get even more intense as the album draws to a close. “The Brave and the Snake” has all the trappings of a traditional rock song, but juxtaposes wistful flutes and vocals with hard-charging guitars. Meanwhile, “Hand Made Hand Gun,” a “hidden” bonus track, is a grim, organ and guitar-fueled dirge that could be the soundtrack for a death march. P.O.S teams with longtime friend Astronautalis to drop rhymes drenched in suffering, desperation, and religious imagery.
P.O.S has continued to release albums both as a solo artist and as a member of Doomtree. For a while, he had to fit in recording and touring around serious health issues, as he dealt with failing kidneys. Subsequent solo albums haven’t been quite as strong as Never Better, but they’re all still honest and raw, and enjoyable musically and lyrically.
Never Better remains perhaps P.O.S’s boldest artistic statement, if not his best overall work. He succeeds in creating an outstanding hip-hop album that incorporates his often disparate influences without selling anything short. And with its success, the album further demonstrates how bad some of those other rocker-rappers were in comparison, as if we needed the reminder.