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Record Review: The Cool Kids’ When Fish Ride Bicycles

By / Posted on 01 August 2011

The Cool Kids - When Fish Ride BicyclesFans of Chicago/Detroit rap duo the Cool Kids could not be blamed for thinking this album might never see the light of day. Announced as their debut LP in 2008, When Fish Ride Bicycles had been shelved due to label issues in favor of two EPs and several mixtapes. In the 21st century’s new environment of digital distribution and self-promotion, it wouldn’t be impossible to conceive of an artist putting out a series of successful mixtapes and never releasing a proper LP. Surprise surprise, then – here we have When Fish Ride Bicycles, the long-promised debut LP that must have been reworked again and again over the past few years.

The inherent problem with this, of course, is that no one will ever be able to qualify When Fish Ride Bicycles as the Cool Kids’ debut.  At 39 minutes, this collection is actually shorter than some of their less prestigious past material. Debuts are intended to be exciting introductions, eye-openers that set hype trains in motion for the hot new thing, but here we have a healthy back catalog to compare to, which makes it all the easier to note how the Cool Kids have changed.

For one, there’s lyrical content. Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks still have the same smooth tellin’-it-like-it-is flow that keeps the party going, but there’s a noticeably increased focus on typical rap subjects like cars and pickin’ up honeys. Doesn’t seem that out of place until to compare it to their earlier tracks about collecting sneakers and flaunting fixed-speed bicycles. These were the down-to-earth inner-city charms that initially drew such an enthusiastic fanbase, and it’s a bit sad to see that side of the story unrepresented. That’s not to say the raps aren’t still great and likely better than most of what’s on commercial radio, but there’s nothing as hooky or engaging as older tracks like “88″ and “What Up Man.” There are requisite guests, as all proper rap LPs must, in the form of Ghostface Killah, Bun B, Asher Roth and others, but none of them offer much worthy of note.

The real star of the show here is the beats, as Chuck Inglish’s chops have noticeably stepped up since the straightforward 808 loops of their Bake Sale EP. When Fish Ride Bicycles sounds less like a promising demo recorded in the basement and more like a proper throwback to 80′s hip-hop, with bouncy synth basslines, distant organ hums, and well-considered reverb on handclaps and snares. Nowhere have Inglish’s chops improved more obviously than on lead single “Swimsuits,” which throws high-energy cymbals and clicks at a surf guitar with so much gusto it is entirely unrecognizable when compared to his classic 808s. Unfortunate, then, that the three catchiest tracks on the LP are the only three not produced by Chuck: the compressed snare and synth stabs of “Sour Apples” by Travis Barker (yes, the drummer from Blink 182) and a duo of summer hooks by Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes in the out-of-place Fresh Prince throwback “Summer Jam” and the completely typical Neptunes clicks and grime of “Get Right.”

Altogether, When Fish Ride Bicycles is a good rap album with the pedigree of a fantastic rap album. Pleasant party hooks can’t distract from the general lack of excitement displayed here. Most of these tracks will likely find their way onto your next party playlist, but they won’t replace The Bake Sale anytime soon.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.