First, some good news – if this whole “rapping” thing doesn’t work out, Action Bronson should have roaring success as a rock star. The opening track, “Brand New Car”, is pulled straight out of a Billy Joel song with Bronson singing off-key and a bouncy, Mark Ronson-produced piano beat. Mr. Wonderful starts out with a bang as Bronson raps about food, women, and New York – all hallmarks of his colorful style. It tells us a few things about Mr. Wonderful: first, this album is not going to break any molds. Second, this album will be upbeat, colorful, and more than a little tongue-in-cheek. And, finally, it will be dripping with references to classic rock. For better or worse, over its 13 tracks and 50-minute runtime, Mr. Wonderful embodies all of these elements.
Action Bronson, born Arian Arslani, is a loved and well-respected rapper within hip-hop circles but with practically zero mainstream success. His food/cooking/travel show, Fuck, That’s Delicious, has developed quite the following on Vice, where it airs. Bronson has made a name for himself as smart, laid-back, earnest, and a seriously nice guy – speaking personally, there aren’t many rappers I would actually want to hang out with, but Bronson is near the top of the list. With this in mind, his major label debut album Mr. Wonderful has been highly anticipated.
The title, ”Mr. Wonderful”, is the perfect name for this album – not only how it sounds, but as a description for what Bronson is trying to do. This isn’t Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly conscious rap, this isn’t Drake sad rap. Mr. Wonderful is a (mostly) lighthearted, entertaining, joyful album and has some happiness even in the darker moments. It’s easy to listen to Mr. Wonderful, and there are moments across this album that seriously bring a smile to my face. That being said, Mr. Wonderful far from reinvents the wheel musically, Bronson’s lyrics won’t make your head spin in any meaningful way, and there are more thoroughly forgettable moments across this album than I had hoped for.
The aforementioned “Brand New Car” finishes up by collapsing into itself, with Bronson apologizing for screwing up the song, before leading to a short interlude of rain, a car alarm, and a dog. This moment of melancholy is quickly interrupted by the opening piano slam of “The Rising”, which has church organs and a gospel-y backing on the hook. This leads to one of my favorite parts of Mr. Wonderful – its reliance on live instrumentation. Almost all of the songs on this album prominently feature live instrumentation, which lends the album a sense of authenticity and performativity that can be sorely lacking from a lot of hip-hop around today. The production on this album across the board is killer.
Speaking of killer production, tracks 3 and 4 are the high point of Mr. Wonderful. We’re treated to the ballad-like production of “Terry”, courtesy of The Alchemist, which also features some of Bronson’s most emotional and earnest lyrics – his “No, don’t hurt me again / please don’t hurt me again” on the hook feels real, before Bronson picks back up with a classic line – “Smoke good, fuck, eat, drink / drive fast car, wear all green mink”, which he repeats three more times before the song slows down. The transition from “Terry” to “Actin’ Crazy” is masterful. Everything falls away, and then we get this strange, electronic, ambient track under a ghostly vocal. We hear Bronson’s voice, and the beat slowly curls up, and flawlessly feeds into the intro of “Actin’ Crazy”.
“Actin’ Crazy” is in competition for the best song on Mr. Wonderful (it’s definitely my favorite), and is one of the best singles of 2015. The production is eerie, but has an undeniable groove, and is weirdly danceable. Bronson’s insistent “Opportunity be knockin / you gotta let a motherfucker in” is empowering, and the rest of his lyrics are personal and sincere, but also funny. Overall, I can’t say enough good things about “Actin’ Crazy”, and about “Terry”.
But here’s the problem – I already knew I loved these songs before Mr. Wonderful came out. In fact, I already knew how well they flowed into each other. “Actin’ Crazy” and “Terry” were both released as singles over the past few months, and are two of the best songs. “Easy Rider” and its video came out last fall. “Baby Blue”, which features Chance the Rapper (and seems to be the most popular and radio-friendly single), came out last month. On a 13-track album, Bronson (or his label) released four singles – not only four singles, but arguably the four best songs on the album. Songs like “Falconry”, “City Boy Blues” (which is just a blues song, with no rapping), “Galactic Love”, and “The Passage – Live from Prague” aren’t necessarily bad, but pale in comparison to Mr. Wonderful’s best moments – and we already knew about the best moments! Even though this doesn’t change how good the songs are, it absolutely changes how good the album is.
By releasing the best moments, Mr. Wonderful doesn’t have any surprises. For sure, the Blue Oyster Cult-inspired “Only in America”, which has a really fun piano solo near the end, was okay. “A Light in the Addict”, probably the darkest track on Mr. Wonderful, is slow and jazzy, with twinkly piano and a bass groove to be jealous of. The only problem is that “A Light in the Addict” was posted on Soundcloud in October (albeit, on the producer’s Soundcloud, and not Bronson’s). “A Light in the Addict”, along with “City Boy Blues” before it and “Baby Blue” after it are supposed to be a mini-musical within the album, an experiment that I think largely fails. I mean, sure, there are similarities, and there’s a bit of a narrative between the three, but I don’t think that making it a “musical” really does anything worthwhile.
“Baby Blue”, my second favorite song on the album, is undoubtedly a keeper. The production has that great piano that’s across this whole release, and manages to be both a love song and a diss song at the same time. Bronson’s lyrics are, as usual, nothing special, but they get the point across. The song gets good when Chance shows up for a single verse – a single verse that, really, is better than any of Bronson’s verses on the entire album. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s touching, and it’s refreshing to see that Chance the Lately-Anything-But-Rapper is keeping his chops up. The closing track, “Easy Rider”, is somber but not sad. Overall, I think that Mr. Wonderful ends strongly, with Bronson’s “Ride my Harley into the sunset” leading into a great guitar solo and the sound of Bronson quite literally riding his Harley into the sunset. It feels like an ending, and wraps up the preceding twelve tracks nicely.
One side note – so far, we’ve seen three music videos for Mr. Wonderful: “Actin’ Crazy”, “Baby Blue”, and “Easy Rider”. Put simply, these are three of the best music videos to come out in the past few months and are more than worth watching. Bronson and his team know how to be entertaining, and that’s why, even if it’s a bit disappointing, I still like Mr. Wonderful. I still think it’s worth a listen, even if it’s not memorable from front-to-back. The moments where Mr. Wonderful is good make up for the moments where it’s forgettable, and is a strong addition to Bronson’s catalog. The world needs more artists and musicians doing the shit that makes them happy, and if there’s one thing I can tell about Mr. Wonderful, it’s that Bronson is doing what makes him happy. He’s making the music he wants to make, and that’s admirable.
LISTEN: Terry, Actin’ Crazy, A Light in the Addict, Baby Blue, Easy Rider
AVOID: City Boy Blues, Galactic Love, The Passage – Live from Prague
Noticeable blemishes keep this from being perfect, but it's still a good listen.7
Lyrics score 7
Production score 9
Composition score 7