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Arts & Life

Music Review: Second Hand King's 'Before the Bomb Drops'

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Joe Stanziola
Joe Stanziola

Second Hand King
Before the Bomb Drops

In a 30-second slice from Before the Bomb Drops' opener, Second Hand King (Joe Stanziola) reminds us to “be glad [we’re] not in Baghdad,” plays a radio sample about the atomic bomb, and regrets drunkenly texting a girl he doesn’t care about. This enigmatic album gives Stanziola a platform to think through his own problems while telling the audience not to think so hard, because “nothing really matters.”

Stanziola, who raps solo on all 15 tracks, remarkably compiles the music of a dozen producers to fortify his end-of-the-world concept. But before the world’s demise, which will sound like the wordless and chilling interlude “The Bomb,” he laments falling in love with unavailable women, remembers his cousin’s heroin addiction, and questions the purpose of God.

The fourth album of Stanziola’s career, but the first physically printed, Before the Bomb Drops is his most successful because of its flow between songs incorporating such distinctively different styles as doo-wop, soul and four-on-the-floor dance beats. The songs stand alone beautifully, but their meanings flourish when played in the album's carefully chosen succession. For a 26-year-old rapper who has grown up in a world of slickly produced digitally released singles, Stanziola grasps the lasting value of building a single concept using many different pieces.

A lackadaisical voice sings “la, la, la, la” underneath Stanziola on "Cheap Love," as he grapples to understand a relationship with a girl that's complicated by her drug-addict baby daddy. A '90s hip-hop beat accompanies muted horns that croon as if they’re playing through a phonograph throughout “Doo Wop Group.” Stanziola sings the chorus, “I know I shouldn’t sing/But I do it anyways, cuz I don’t believe in reality/It means nothing to me and I’m happy that way.” The guy can sing, so it's as if he’s asking for permission in an endearing style of self-deprecation. He says he’s happy, but the tinge of sadness in his voice betrays him, evoking longing for another time, another place, another opportunity. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way the beat rolls on through life, leaving behind anyone who can’t keep up.

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Stanziola mixes his voice at the same level as his music, placing equal importance on music and lyrics and sounding like those overachievers everyone knows who are never satisfied with themselves. “I work like a slob and feel useless/I wish I could quit/But then my parents would think I’m a piece of shit,” he says of his nuisance job on “Perfect Day.” “Cold Shoulder” opens with a sober dedication: “I wrote this song for all the women in my life that hate me.” The honesty is refreshing in a genre full of self-aggrandizement, and it’s heartbreaking to hear Stanziola beat himself up over such a gorgeous music bed.

Real trap-set beats spliced with upright piano and reverby electric guitars make up about half the album’s music. Towards the end, modern hip-hop sounds of ambient synthesizers and drum pads emerge underneath the lyrics. But most tracks mix the electric and live instruments with scores of effects to create unpredictable Flying Lotus-style beats.

Before the Bomb Drops becomes darker as it draws to close. On “The End of The World,” Stanziola advises that “nobody knows what’s next/be happy to be yourself.” Yet, he scatters his own identity crises throughout the record.

“I’m Coming Home” fades into a Cold War-era clip of Edward R. Murrow reminding Americans they are “defenders of freedom” who should not walk in fear. These intriguing samples help Stanziola achieve his goal of inflicting a sense of impending doom. But the passion in his voice destroys his effort to make us apathetic.

Hannah Copeland is an announcer and arts contributor at KCUR. Follow her on Twitter @hannaecopeland.

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