One of the most selfish things we music fans do in an age of selfish music consumption is look on disapprovingly as an act we discovered at its inception gains more mainstream attention and inevitably changes to accommodate that attention. I admit to being one of those critics who will praise a band’s first album and then complain about how later efforts became “over-produced” and lack the grit and hunger of the debut. Admittedly, I’ve held a fear in my heart for the moment Action Bronson would “go mainstream” for some time now. Starting with his heavy output in 2011 (The Program EP, Dr. Lecter, Well Done, and Bon Appetit…Bitch), Bronson has brought a flavor to the game that had not been seen before, despite casual listeners feeling inclined to compare him vocally to Ghostface Killah. Despite some questionable creative decisions, I’m happy to say that Mr. Wonderful manages to appropriately represent the artist as he’s grown musically without compromising much for the approval of mainstream listeners.
The album’s earlier tracks are more the Bronson one might expect, from “Brand New Car” (which borrows excellently from Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar”) to “The Rising”, which features the ever-present Big Body Bes, who has the unique ability to crush your ego and build it up to unreasonable levels simultaneously with his eccentric rants. “Falconry” has Bronson and cohort Meyhem Lauren in rare form, with Bronson stating that “your ideas lack adobo” before Lauren declares he’s “New York before it turned into a bike lane”, no doubt commenting on the gentrification of New York City and its transformation into hipster central.
“Terry” is easily a standout on this album, along with the other singles like “Actin’ Crazy” and “Easy Rider”, which all seem to highlight the two qualities that make Bronson a top MC: his ability to paint an abstract picture and his ear for great production. It’s this that allows one to not only excuse songs like “A Light In The Addict” and “The Passage (Live From Prague)”, but even appreciate Bronson’s conviction about including them on the album. While it all may come off like a hodgepodge at first, the common thread here seems to me to be musicality. Bronson appreciates music to the point he doesn’t mind it obscuring or completely replacing his rapping at times. Songs like “Only In America” solidify my theory that Mr. Wonderful is the kind of album that will appeal to rap fans who also like Whitesnake and Phil Collins. The robust electric guitar on this record takes you right back to the 1980s, an era Bronson seems quite fond of if you recall he and Party Supplies’ concoction “Contemporary Man”.
The flaws on this album, however, sit in the middle of the album like a malignant tumor, just waiting for an excision from your otherwise palatable tracklist. Starting with “Thug Love Story 2017 The Musical”, which is an interlude, Bronson allots two minutes and twenty seconds to allowing what appears to be some random person on the street to sing (badly) which leads into Bronson himself singing badly on the next song. “City Boy Blues”. While musically solid, “City Boy Blues” has Bronson overdoing his faux-crooning (which, to date, is mildly amusing everywhere except here), leaving the listener hoping for a sixteen bars that never comes. It’s the kind of song that probably sounded great in Bronson’s head but has the avid listener wishing the track had been replaced by something better, like the recent “Big League Chew” with Alchemist. The other stinker is “Baby Blue”, an obvious Mark Ronson product by the plodding piano and old-time vibe. Given the artists we’ve seen Bronson collaborate with, Chance the Rapper is also an odd choice for a guest feature, leaving one to think his addition was something the label was probably excited about, hoping for some attention from fans that wouldn’t normally pick up the album. Needless to say, it wasn’t an interesting collaborative effort and again, the money could have been better used on the guest artist and the slot could have been filled by a better record. These forays into subject matter and romance pale in comparison to earlier concept tracks like the stellar “Hookers At The Point”.
Mr. Wonderful is a bizarre album, to say the least. To me, it resonates as an experiment in sound, mixing very new-sounding, “out there” backdrops with a very comfortable 90’s-era flow. While I appreciate the boom-bap Action floats effortlessly over on older records like “Get Off The PP” or “Imported Goods”, he’s also got an impeccable ear for off-the-beaten-path tunes provided to him by the likes of Alchemist, Party Supplies, Statik Selektah, and Mark Ronson. Where else in rap are you going to hear an arbitrary Chuck Knoblauch reference on top of a track that sounds like a tranquil gondola ride (“Terry”)? This album isn’t for everyone and by no means is it without its fumbles, but this is the kind of evolution artists should be looking at musically because artists should be making music that’s true to them and not so much what will appeal to everyone. Action Bronson continues to be in his own lane in rap and that’s to be applauded within a music industry that’s focused on taking minimal risks.