When firing on all cylinders, this thing they call nerdcore is that rare musical subclass that seems to utterly defy the standard critical rubric. Trying to parse an artist like MC Lars for subtext is to either miss the point or commit the critical fallacy of heaping scorn upon something simply for being what it is; holding him artistically accountable for polluting the world with dumb music is dubious. But because he still operates within the same fundamental parameters as most rappers, it’s similarly inaccurate to evaluate him strictly as a comedian; lest the sound of chirping crickets follow his punch lines, he’s no less responsible to the laws of lyrical meter and rhyme placement than Nas, Snoop Dogg or Tyler, The Creator. The essence of his art, then, is conjunctive, and deconstructed in full by two very simple questions: “Can MC Lars rap?” and “Is MC Lars funny?”
According to Lars Attacks!—Lars’s endearingly titled sixth full-length—the answer to both of these questions is “kind of.” Occasionally clumsy and interminably enunciated, his flow makes the most of beats that frequently give it little support, even when mercilessly outclassed by guests (KRS-One on “The Gospel Of Hip-Hop,” Weerd Science on “How To Be An Indie Rapper”). But the crux of the endeavor comes in how well interwoven Lars’s technical skill is into his comedic presentation, and this is the department in which Lars Attacks! loses the most points. When he manages to fire off a good one, his timing is impeccable: “Gavrilo Princip/Shot Franz Ferdinand/Which led to World War I/And a famous Swedish band” (“History’s Greatest Assholes”). Nothing if not a scenester himself, Lars has his finger on the pulse of what makes the subculture tick, and they did on earlier yuks like “Signing Emo” and “Download This Song,” his sharpest moments (“How To Be An Indie Rapper” and opener “Going Back To Brooklyn”—which comes complete with an AP reference!) reveal both its realities and absurdities in a playful, nonjudgmental manner. But too often Lars Attacks! feels like a stand-up routine that never lifts off; it follows a script for what “funny” is supposed to look like, but it’s rarely enough to eclipse the prevailing discomfort that comes from being stuck in that room where no one’s laughing.
There’s a good chance that much of this is simply due to the fact that the best part of Lars’s joke is the joke itself. In these post-Lonely Island days, it’s becoming clear that not even 100,000 rotten YouTube videos can soften the effect of dorky white guys boasting their grittiest in what remains nonetheless a predominantly black art form, which perhaps is why Lars Attacks! is at its most effective on the atypical sentimental closer “The Giving Tree” (15th track “Annabelle Lee R.I.P” is a Kickstarter-only bonus track). In a devastating whirl on Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s story of the same name, Lars not only elucidates upon the original text, but also begets sensitivity in a way that the preceding thirteen tracks wouldn’t lead one to expect, and in turn renders the ultimate value of his or any comedic endeavor. People often remark that something is “funny because it’s true”; what they generally mean by that is that they’ve just learned something they didn’t realize they already knew. Would only that it didn’t take 14 tracks and 57 minutes, across which Lars’s joke becomes stale indeed, to learn it.