Back when white rappers were still a relative novelty, MC Paul Barman was the strangest one of all. An impossibly horny New Jersey nebbish, drunk on his own id and the possibilities of language, Barman blurted out his rhymes like some unholy hybrid of James Joyce, Eminem and a public-access perv. His flow was shaky, his jokes were tasteless, and on his cult-classic debut EP, 2000’s It’s Very Stimulating, he was an outrageous delight.
Nearly 20 years later, the shtick remains the same, more or less. Barman – also known as “the nicest since Dionysus,” also also known as “the Dom sipper on Yom Kippur that gets props like sweatshops when Third World debt stops” – spends his first album since 2009 riffing through deep-ish thoughts at a hyperactive clip. There are songs about racism and the stresses of parenthood, and one where he kicks knowledge in the voice of the God of the Old Testament. If that sounds less funny than the Barman you remember, you’re not wrong: His persona has matured over time into something slightly less sweaty and unhinged, more like the lovably eccentric uncle at your family’s seder.
As ever, though, it’s a kick to hear him stack syllables into free-standing Jenga towers. (“I like writing rhymes while I’m still bleary-eyed/And let freshness be my cheery guide/This one nearly died when I opened my eyes/Whoever said ‘work hard, play hard’ clearly lied …”) It helps that (((Echo Chamber))) features the best batch of beats on any Barman project since that first EP, with Questlove, MF Doom and his old mentor Prince Paul all showing up in the liner notes. Their production is a link back to the vanished world of Nineties alternative rap that birthed Barman, even as two guest appearances from new-school theorist Open Mike Eagle suggest a place for him at the heart of today’s thriving indie hip-hop scene. Don’t laugh: Weirder things – like, say, this guy’s entire career – have happened.