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P.O.S “Never Better” Review

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POS Never Better Doomtree

Three minutes into Never Better, P.O.S has already taken stabs at the government, gawked at the recession, used Macho Man as a verb, referenced The Dude, and gave shout-outs to both his crew (Doomtree) and his label (Rhymesayers). And “Let it Rattle” is one of the mellowest tracks on the MC’s third full-length release. Never Better is an album as highly anticipated as any recent Twin Cities’ releases, but saying that it makes good on expectation might not be doing it justice. Saying that the record meets the standard set by last year’s Doomtree, Cecil Otter or Mike Mictlan and Lazerbeak releases would be true, but might not be true enough. Roughly two years ago, I first heard tracks from an album that has since changed the way I think about hip hop and the way I listen to MCs. That album was El-P’s epic I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, and to express the immediate awe experienced when listening to Never Better, that might be the only fitting comparison.

Following “Let it Rattle,” the first thing that pops out of the speakers is the raging drum loop that introduces “Drumroll (We’re All Thirsty).” Blazing percussion plays a recurring role throughout Never Better, reappearing in full force on “Purexed” and “The Basics (Alright).” To give you a better idea, take the organ intro from Common’s “The People,” introduce the song with a few bars, then dive straight into a thrash-metal snare loop—that’s what you’ll hear with “Purexed.” But it’s not just the drum ‘n bass loops (sans ‘n bass) that draw you in, it’s the entire musical body—“The Basics” delivers a snap that almost overshadows its insane beat, adding another loop that sounds a bit like an elderly version of those chipmunks Kanye used to sample. The whole thing is unlike anything I’ve heard before.

That’s not to discount the other tracks on the album, many of which have beats that shred apart 20 years of influence. “Savion Glover” combines a beat with borderline-lazy scratches, in replicating a sound similar to that of a lot of late-80’s b-boy hip hop. Doomtree’s Lazerbeak provides the powerful beat for “Goodbye,” one that parallels a lot of what was heard on Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth—it’s fitting then, that P.O.S somewhat emulates the MC’s rhyming style on the track. But like When You’re Dead, Never Better thrives on the unusual collaboration between sound and lyrics—something the album is far from short on.

The complicated aspect of the record isn’t just in keeping up with the rapid-fire release with which P.O.S expels his lyrics, but understanding what message is at their core. Take, for example, the previously mentioned “Let it Rattle;” there are bits and pieces that stand out, but to find common ground throughout the entire song is far from an easy thing to do. Without CliffsNotes, it’s nearly impossible to trace an impression of what the tracks on Never Better are about—but there lies the art behind the sound. On “Drumroll,” P.O.S speeds through bar after bar of seemingly unconnected lyrics, before unleashing a set buried deep inside: “These preachers speak from their pockets/These teachers reach but can’t stop it/Seedlings poisoned so lost just/Followin’ prophets to nonsense.” That momentary lyrical clarity isn’t exclusive to just “Drumroll,” either, for throughout Never Better are bits of poetry that present relevant themes within a confusing context. That is life, is it not—bits and pieces of truth and thought heavily burdened by surrounding noise and seemingly unconnected themes?

Poetry within any context is something meant to be appreciated, but not automatically understood. A poet lends their artistic voice towards creating both clarity and opacity, not necessarily aspiring to be agreed with. If you were to ask a guy like KRS-One, he might tell you that the idea of poets lending their voices to an established sound was what built hip hop. Never Better is tight. Not good-tight (though it is), but tight like it’s the result of months, if not years, of hard training—with only the leanest of beats and lyrics remaining. In combining his sharp poetry with the raw sounds of Never Better, P.O.S has something that, again, can only remind me of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. The reason for the comparison isn’t simply in sound, but in theory—both albums showcase poets representing unique styles, unique deliveries, and unique sounds somewhere within the context of a now well established genre. And, years from now, if you were to ask whomever it is that follows in KRS-One’s footsteps, they might very well tell you that albums such as these two were some of the first to transition hip hop into what it is yet to become.