Written By: Phillip Mlynar
Witnessing Action Bronson’s grass-roots rise felt like watching a beloved food cart get wildly popular. Back in 2010, Bronson was an aspiring rapper from Flushing, Queens. He turned culinary references learned during his days as a chef into braggadocio fodder. Why boast about cash and cars, after all, when you can assert superiority by rapping about pairing roasted bone marrow with lightly toasted rosemary bread, all drizzled with the appropriate vinaigrette? With his knack for outlandish phrases (like casually describing himself as “heavy bearded like I’m Jesus”), the rapper’s charisma soon endeared him to an audience broader than the underground heads who leapt at early tracks like “Shiraz” and “Imported Goods.” Those songs’ lo-fi videos starred Bronson himself, puttering around his neighborhood to buy olives and prosciutto from Arthur Avenue. He become an indigenous flavor with exotic appeal.
Bronson is now a world-recognized brand. Identified by his fantastical ginger beard and penchant for shorts in all seasons, he claims a couple of TV shows on the Vice network, a cookbook, and a role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming The Irishman. Brooklyn eateries name menu items for him. As with any successful franchise, though, scaling up can risk diluting your appeal, even if the packaging gets slicker. The 26-minute White Bronco, Bronson’s ninth full-length project, largely lacks the piquancy and depth that made him matter.
White Bronco opens with “Dr. Kimble” and a sleazy, guitar-wrestling beat from one of Bronson’s longtime cohorts, Harry Fraud. Bronson’s flow is silky and laid-back, with little pizzazz to the lines: “I cop cars and crash ’em/Next day the same thing/Next day Beijing.” Bronson might be jetting around the world, but the details of the itinerary are less evocative than when he was dropping by neighborhood delis and dropping hometown lines: “Straight from Flushing/Where the birds are hanging dead in the window.”
Unlike earlier albums that benefited from Bronson pairing with one producer—like his 2011 studio debut Dr. Lecter with Tommy Mas, or Blue Chips with Party Supplies—the potluck approach here gives White Bronco an uneven feel. Daringer’s slinky title track—which also features Bronson’s in-house band, the Special Victims Unit—jars against Samiyam’s psyche-rock sinew on “Telemundo.” Knxwledge’s soulful, string-infused work for “Picasso’s Ear” belongs on an entirely different album than the synth-layered electro of Fraud’s “Swerve on Em,” which includes a throwaway verse from A$AP Rocky. This mix does does little to elicit instant-vintage rhymes. On “Telemundo,” for instance, Bronson treads water with lines like, “About to get this paper like Judge Judy/Told my baby, ‘Come do me’/All these drugs just run through me.” They lack the humor and flair of a guy who has bragged about installing a Jacuzzi on the 7 train and using lion’s neck as a secret ingredient.
Tellingly, White Bronco’s punchiest moment comes when Bronson is reunited with Party Supplies, a producer who’s said they have collaborated by searching YouTube for phrases like “a 100-acre burgundy carpet” until unearthing a quirky gem to loop. Party Supplies’ beats have a scuzzy immediacy, as if he’s just stumbled across something to sample and is in thrall to that feeling of discovery. Based around a spunky take on “Tramp,” the short “Irishman Freestyle” has Bronson snobbishly informing us, “Don’t drink gin and tonic/Only natural wine, to be honest.” A few lines later he is “butt naked with the Uzi on Broadway,” telling the gawkers, “My haircut is like Dominican folk art.” This is the absurd, laugh-out-loud stuff that takes you back to the essence of Bronson—and offers an acute reminder of the old flavor missing from much of White Bronco.