A thought experiment: Imagine how Kendrick Lamar might’ve been different if he’d been born two decades earlier. Lamar is a distant descendent of the Los Angeles boho-rap scene that produced the Pharcyde, whose debut album Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde turned 20 over the weekend. It’s possible to hear echoes of, say, Pharcyde member Slimkid3′s urgently sproingy delivery in Lamar’s dense clumps of verbiage. And on his own Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, Kendrick plays a character pretty similar to the image the Pharcyde presented on Bizarre Ride: Around-the-way nerds whose undeniable intelligence doesn’t stop them from doing dumb things. Like Lamar, they keep the skits coming, using them for context. But Lamar is a product of a different time, a time when sharp and promising young rappers are encouraged to leave sober and lasting opuses every time they release an album (at least, when they aren’t being encouraged to make EDM-crossover bullshit). The Pharcyde, on the other hand, came in the wake of Native Tongues and their various descendents, living in an era when major-label rap albums could be absurdist goofs and still be hailed as groundbreaking, when even Dr. Dre was recording silly joke-skits. It’s hard to say which approach is superior, but two decades after it landed, it’s pretty obvious that Bizarre Ride has aged at least as well as Lamar hopes all its stuff will.
I was barely aware of them at the time, but I can’t imagine anyone expected the Pharcyde to emerge as capital-A artists — a stark difference from Lamar, who’s had an entire coast’s hopes on him since he debuted. Three of the Pharcyde’s four members were dancers — and they met when one of them was dancing backup for the fourth, Fatlip. And they kept dancing even as their rap career was getting going; that’s them striking hieroglyphic poses behind Michael Jackson in the “Remember The Time” video, released nine months before Bizarre Ride. And even after they made their impact, the group’s members clearly considered themselves entertainers as much as anything else. Fatlip left the group after they started playing raves, figuring this wasn’t what real rappers did; the others had no such compunctions. Slimkid3 produced Brian Austin Green’s album a few years later, then showed up on a Korn LP a few years after that. When I saw the post-Fatlip Pharcyde live six years after Bizarre Ride, they moved around the stage with the fluid, antic grace of the dancers who they really still were.
And Bizarre Ride is, more than anything, a work of entertainment, or of kids entertaining themselves by fucking around with the exuberant energy that you miss when you get older. First single “Ya Mama” is just a craven onslaught of mother jokes that get increasingly baroque as the song continues: “You said ya mom was pretty and young / But she’s old as dirt and got hair on her tongue.” (In retrospect, it’s a wonder they didn’t turn out like Hot Stylz, of “Lookin Boy” fame.) “Officer” starts out as a “Weird Al”-style parody of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos,” except it’s about driving under a suspended license. Late in the album, the group’s members break into ecstatic multi-part harmony when they find out their dealer is on his way. And throughout, their voices veer and ping and bounce off of each other, a box full of superballs. Their jokes are aimed at themselves more often than not, so there’s pathos in there, but it’s almost accidental.
But for all the anarchy of its sensibility, Bizarre Ride is a work of art so sharp in its aim and execution that it’s pretty much beautiful. Those voices weave and interlock with a virtuosic assurance that was rare then and is even rarer now. Their deliveries are fast and melodious, dipping in and out of the beats with ADD verve. And those beats! Producer J-Swift found a euphoric middle ground between Prince Paul’s junk-shop bubble-funk and DJ Premier’s precise neck-snap; his tracks were fierce and alive. These guys reportedly all hated each other behind the scenes; all of them only barely made it to a second album, and J-Swift didn’t even get that far. But together, they had a rare and electric songwriting chemistry that made utterly perfect songs like “Passin’ Me By” possible. Other songs on the album come close, but “Passin’ Me By” remains one of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments, those times when a group manages to pile everything that makes them special into four perfect minutes: Dizzily bitter self-deprecation, natural storytelling chops, vicious hooks, gorgeously rendered counter-rhythms, samples perfectly mined, punchlines that make sense, flows so intentionally annoying that you immediately start to pinch your nose and see if you can replicate them. Kendrick Lamar has already made more albums than the classic-lineup Pharcyde, and I have little doubt that he’s going to have a brilliant career. But will he ever make anything as enduring as “Passin’ Me By”? I don’t know. Probably not. Hardly anyone ever does.
So: Bizarre Ride! Favorite memories? Greatest moments that it soundtracked? Favorite “Ya Mama” insults? Let’s take this up in the comments section. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read Alex Pappademas’s Grantland appreciation of the album, which bodied mine before I even started writing it. And now let’s watch some videos.
And it’s not on Bizarre Ride, but it’s one of the best music videos ever, so I’m posting it anyway: