"Honey," the third track from BBGuns' new record Help Yourself, opens with a crunchy guitar line that sounds a whole lot like a live Big Brother and the Holding Company performance (and may be). The fidelity thickens after a few seconds and the sunny beat drops: a mix of playful psychedelia, extroverted catchiness, and sure-footed, fidgety, smart lyrics. The focus here — the worries and vulnerability that come with navigating the tricky reward systems of substance-use — come through with impressive clarity. Listening to it, it's like, "Wait, why does he sound like he's having a good time? Where did this come from?"
OK, BBGuns — the core duo of Lazy JP and Barz Blackman — didn't sprout up overnight. The 2018 record Thirst bears many of the old-school hip-hop literacy and experimental beat-building that's grabbing headlines for this album now. But Help Yourself is more fully baked, refreshing, and deeper than what they've done before. It's somehow more carefree and more cerebral than previous records, and that's a powerful combination.
BBGuns is never too serious to veer into pretention, but also never so loose to suggest a nihilism or lack of effort. And no shit. It takes work to balance and convey anxiety and joy in such a cohesive way. (It reminds me of the charmingly pretentious Les Savy Fav, a great, now-defunct Brooklyn band who married apocalyptic dread and major chords as thoughtfully as BBGuns does here. The genre is different, but the same points are hit.)
There are disparate genres woven throughout — jazz, lo-fi rap, old-school hip hop — but it's that 1960s San Francisco vibe that comes through more clearly. It's a weird sort of stoned optimism that feels both unearned and totally deserved, the happiness people are due when things feel doomed. Thirst's cover art has a breaking ocean wave; Help Yourself has a frozen popsicle, an image whose message on an unquestionable "summer record" is pretty easy to parse. People are in a good mood and it will probably end.
While there is dread throughout, like the album title announces, the focus here is more or less a form of self-care. The lyrics are as neurotic, introspective, honest, and funny as those who've been paying attention have come to expect. But where BBGuns stomps out some new territory on this record is the soothing friction between the cerebral world-building of the beats and the concrete poetry of the lyrics. (Mandatory shoutout to contributing producers Charlie Scott, Logan Sound, Height Keech, and Nice Rec.)
The production and the lyricism variously match, clash, and underline each other, producing a result that isn't just appealing in a primal sense, but also engrossing and challenging. These songs don't just invite multiple listens, they kind of demand them (nicely). And the more you dig into it, the more encouraging, yet distressing, it becomes. It's a hell of a balance that's bound to resonate with you more than you'd probably like it to.
Help Yourself is out now via Crafted Sounds.