a2137484089_10Picture the Viper Room, an iconic, purposefully run-down concert venue on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, filled with the fans from the current show, a rap group I didn’t recognize. The fans of the band on stage are in front, and they’re a pretty diverse mix of Los Angelinos who are all dressed for a hip-hop concert. Hanging around the back, near the walls, looking at their phones, talking to one another, wearing ironic t-shirts referencing inscrutable internet memes and coding jokes,  are the fans waiting to see Random aka Megaran and the headliner, MC Frontalot—the father of nerdcore hip-hop. I was in the back, too, alone and holding my MA thesis, in which I mentioned Frontalot and Random, for both of them to sign. Yes, really.

I first encountered MC Frontalot in the 2008 SXSW premier of a tour documentary titled Nerdcore Rising. He already had a following and two studio albums at that time and has released four more in the intervening years. His latest, Question Bedtime, is half concept album/half children’s music (no swears). It is also his best to date and shows how creativity can turn a sometimes gimmicky subgenre (see MC Hawking, who sounds exactly like you imagine) into real art.

The setup for Question Bedtime is set forth in a series of skits where Frontalot is the babysitter and his (all adult) friends play children unwilling to fall asleep. The songs, then, are Frontalot’s various attempts to tell a bedtime story suitable to silence his young charge (Lil’ Kyle questions the whole concept of 7:45 bedtime; lil’ Negin wants to stay up and do another batch of W-2s).

The songs themselves are fairy tales turned on their head or faithfully told with a fun twist. “Start Over” offers Frontalot’s take on Little Red Riding Hood interrupted with children saying “That’s not how it happened!”, forcing him to offer another, then another. “Much Chubbier” is a pretty straightforward telling of the Three Billy Goats Gruff (“Look at me, I could be much chubbier! If I could eat, you would see much chubbier me!”). Much of Frontalot’s appeal is found in his verbal contortions and overly precise annunciation—he spins together strings of monosyllabic words that result in imaginative renderings of otherwise straightforward statements. A representative example is from “I Can See,” his rendering of The Emperor Wears No Clothes—specifically, the tailor’s sales pitch to the emperor:

Your prominence, I promise that your dominance is undisputed:
when it comes to looking fresh, you’re as reputed!
I’m a whisper in your kingdoms, they don’t dare to buy the best.
Might look so good that it’s scandalous. [. . .]

Be sure before you order though, ‘cause this one’s fine.
So delicate, you’ll never feel it. And so sublime
that it’s difficult to see for anyone above their birth.
Sent an Archduke into exile on the other side the earth.
I besmirch of course none of your councilors’ parentage,
still I shouldn’t forgive myself, giving embarrassment.

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Scott Beale / Laughing Squid | http://laughingsquid.com/

“I Can See” is also an excellent example of MC Frontalot’s development as a musician. The song is heavily layered, and a background beat of doumbek gives the song a vaguely oriental feel that is true to how we think of the story’s cultural origins. It’s a far cry from the first couple of albums, which were fun to listen to but driven less by the music than by the quirky, sometimes absurd lyrics (“Braggadocio”: “I act appalled when in receipt of less than the highest honor. Some day I’ll be both revered & passé, like Madonna.”). Question Bedtime has music that is engaging and complex without being completely inaccessible to a more general audience than Frontalot typically entertains.

The only hesitation I have in recommending Question Bedtime (other than the prospect of ridicule) is its dark tone. I don’t think it is dangerous for young ears, but it’s more suitable for readers of A Series of Unfortunate Events than Happy! by Pharrell Williams (<digression>The celebrity-as-children’s-book-author trend has officially gone too far.</digression>). “Gold Locks,” wherein Goldilocks is reimagined as a bear-hunting psycho, pushes the boundaries of what I consider to be acceptably dark. It’s also a pretty clever song with a nice hook and fun lyrics; I’ll listen to it by myself, though. The tone is not a strike against Question Bedtime—indeed, I am what David Rakoff called a “joyless, little rain cloud of a thing”—but the album definitely won’t appeal to everyone. It might appeal to a lot of you, though, and far more than his first five albums.

You may note that one of the key assumptions of the foregoing commentary is that MC Frontalot is sincerely trying to create a hip-hop children’s album. That is, he did not intend to satirize the hip-hop or children’s music genres; Question Bedtime is a contribution to both. The latter is not controversial, but the former represents an ever-present anxiety in nerdcore hip-hop. Nearly every nerdcore album I own includes at least one song making an argument for its artist’s music as legitimate hip-hop.

MC Frontalot’s path to legitimacy, as his name proclaims, is to boldly state that he in no way meets listeners’ expectations of a hip-hop artist. His songs do not, however, attack hip-hop, and many are self-deprecating. Much like Weird Al Yankovic (the patron saint of nerdcore) parodies in appreciation of pop music, Frontalot displays a deep love of the wordplay and musical pastiche via sampling that generally under-girds the core of hip-hop.

I recognize that for most hip-hop fans, nerdcore will never be part of the wider genre; many may even resent songs about video games, Voltron, the digital apocalypse, or bedtime stories. Such songs may not seem authentically hip-hop. Years ago, the nerdcore rapper Beefy took up this question in an interesting way when he asked in a blog post whether the genre will go the way of Christian music, i.e., driven by its subject matter rather than its artistic merit.

I love all of MC Frontalot’s albums, but I recognize that the first two were mostly driven by the nerd culture–based subject matter. They were still sincere, but their scope was limited by nerdcore’s novelty at that time. The next three albums were more complex, interesting, and fun. Question Bedtime gives nerdcore fans a unique, daring, and charming album that demonstrates the genre’s capacity to achieve artistic merit. Or, as Frontalot himself might put it, he can continue to persist “in [his] insistence to prove, that every twist of [his] tongue is a radical move (which it is, obviously!).”