"It's easy to stop eating when your belly's full," spits Busdriver on the opening cut of his latest—his eleventh—solo full-length release, Thumbs. This thirteen-track mixtape is proof positive that the longtime Los Angeles-based alt-rapper is still, thankfully, deeply hungry. He packs each track chock-full with friends and collaborators providing exciting, modern, yet eccentric production and guest verses, while exploring cultural and political concepts from an intimately personal viewpoint.
A veteran rhyming machine, Busdriver has seen the world of hip-hop change from the inside out. He came up through LA's Project Blowed, and now serves as creative director of the more recently-formed rap collective Hellfyre Club, so it's no wonder he's so entrenched in the underground scene. Kenny Segal, Mono/Poly, and rising talent greyhat, among others, all pitch in to serve up some of the most interesting and varied beats I've heard all year (though with Driver overseeing executive production of the project, it mostly maintains a steady, logical flow and progression). Meanwhile, Driver allows featured guests the space to really stretch out (Del The Funky Homosapien gets an entire track to himself, while Hemlock Ernst delivers an extremely tight verse on the stand-out "Ministry of the Torture Couch"), which does well to give listeners some breathing room between Driver's own hard-hitting, often dizzying and challenging verses.
But the artist's remarkably long and consistent career has also proved disillusioning. Many of Busdriver's recent releases have touched on his struggles with the music industry and success in some form or another; here, one of the first lines he speaks is "The music don't make money, it makes men make money." On the third track, "Much," which is a surprisingly catchy and lyrically-intelligible number, he repeats the line "I'm just doing all of my favorite stuff / And I'm doing too much," pairing it with comments like "You may be doing way too much when executives say you suck" and "Me branching out is tantamount to an overflow." All told, it's a clear and unmistakable rant against imposed boundaries on black artistic identity within the business of rap and hip-hop especially, and it deftly gets the point across while achieving a relatively light, digestible sound you can actually bob your head to.
As with all Busdriver material (and all great hip-hop in general), it’s impossible to fully unpack this project in the span of a 500-word review. Through all the multilayered comments and criticisms (and the introduction of a new alter-ego/pseudonym, Equiano-ultra, which tellingly pays homage to one of the UK's foremost leaders in the abolitionist movement), Busdriver maintains his idiosyncrasy while also delivering some practically radio-friendly tunes (see “Worlds to Run” in particular). Thumbs ends up being a dense, intellectual album well within Busdriver’s modus operandi, but it also feels gratifying and enjoyable to listen to in a way that much of his output has seemed to circumvent. It happily invites new listeners to dive into the impressive work of one of rap’s most established underground acts.