Is Jarren Benton crazy? Throughout his thrilling mixtapes, as he bore Redman's influence and took cues from horror films like pre-Recovery Eminem, the rising Decatur, Ga., rapper convincingly claimed that hip-hop can't handle him. "Am I the only guy who wanted to fuck Casey Anthony?" he once rapped. Do people talk this way of a mother accused of murdering her two-year-old child? While sporting a coonskin cap like Davy Crockett, Benton has veered recklessly through mixtape cuts of why he's clinically insane — acting as though he was willing to sound mad, if only to make himself known. But in his Kato-produced debut My Grandma's Basement — bursting with ideas — Benton occasionally takes a deep breath and actually takes a harder look at how madness can consume anyone.
In frantic spurts, Benton still taunts like a grade-school bully: "'Do you have anything to say that's sort of positive?' Yup: suck a dick, suck a dick, suck a dick, and by the way, suck a dick." He sobers up and regains his composure, only to relapse when his self-depreciation surfaces. While Benton fills My Grandma's Basement with hooks that are catchy enough for rap radio ("Don't Act," "The Way It Goes"), there's no sense that he could function as a well-mannered sneaker spokesman.
In fact, the album's greatest moments are often sly winks at mainstream expectations. In the lead single and album banger "Cadillacs & Chevys," Benton shouts to his broke friends as he makes bold claims about hooking up — not at a club, but at Comic-Con.
Later, "My Adidas" imagines a Def Jam meeting where a label executive suggests he kick off a track like Run-DMC once did. To scratches, Benton sagely responds by referencing 2Pac's bleakest album at the chorus, to pinpoint what happens when major labels profit off of, and blindly perpetuate ridiculous gang imagery: "It's Me Against the World in my Adidas."
In My Grandma's Basement's darkest number, "Heart Attack," police relay details of a murder suspect, last seen with a knife and a coonskin cap. It appears that Benton has killed an ex-girlfriend so she can't hurt him anymore, but he doesn't sound satisfied at all. Whether he's rejecting corporate input or stabbing an ex-girlfriend who cheated and moved on, Benton still poses the same question: Is he crazy?
He never seems to arrive at a conclusion, but that's okay. At its best, My Grandma's Basement feels too weird to offer any real answers.
In "Bully" he whines, "Jarren, stay on that stupid shit." Later in "PBR & Reefer," without hesitation, he borrows the popping melody to Trinidad James' molly-endorsing "All Gold Everything." He criticizes mainstream rap, only to show how he's anything but susceptible to its appeal.
He also alternates from being merciless and outlandish to fearful and frantic. "Life in the Jungle" runs through a laundry list of his shortcomings, while "Smells Like" casts all of those aside. ("Fuck a beat, I'll rap to a queef," Benton raps — and that may be the dullest line he delivers in that song.) He riles up and calms down like a skipping record, to a point where My Grandma's Basement feels like it's about two songs too long.
Still, from the album's intro to the bitter end, Benton does effectively destroy the basis for any and all comparisons to Tyler, the Creator. While the Odd Future ringleader clearly raps for shock value, Benton snaps off shocking narratives as if he can't help himself. No lyrical territory feels safe.
In the album's title track, a solid hour after his YaYa warmly introduced the album, Benton wakes up in his grandma's basement. And to the sound of a swelling bass that could crumble under the pressure of its own weight, Benton screams and rhymes — trapped, delirious, and desperate for help. There's no sign that anyone hears him, no Charles Ramsey figure in sight, leaving little hope that he'll ever escape. But as the album unfolds, Benton makes one thing clear: He can handle himself just fine.
4 out of 5 stars