So I’ve been wondering who the hell Gym Class Heroes are for some time now. People just keep telling me about them. It’s usually someone who, knowing I’m into the hippity hop, says something like, “Yeah, I’ve broadened my horizons a bit. I’m even into some hip hop… like Gym Class Heroes are pretty cool.” Then they talk to me about N.E.R.D. and they lose me because I don’t like N.E.R.D. Plus, the hip hop people always wrinkle up their noses when they are mentioned, so I decided to follow their lead and wrinkle my nose up, too.
Then came the out-of-left-field tour news of the year. Gym Class Heroes, along with Estelle, will be opening for The Roots this fall. So that’s it… they are opening for The Roots, they rap, and they are the face of hip hop to a segment of the population not too familiar with the genre. As the editor of a hip hop website, I am obligated to listen to their new album.
So I started listening to the album. It was about what I expected. A lot of cheesiness, well-known guest stars, and live instruments, which explains why the people discussed in the first paragraph are so into Gym Class Heroes. Then I hit track seven, the abysmal single “Cookie Jar”, and I realized I needed to take a break. I went and scrubbed my toilet and listened to Okkervil River for a little while. Then I came back and listened to the track with Lil’ Wayne. It’s sort of funny because you can hear him revving up that damn autotuner about a minute before he starts kind-of rapping. That a boy Weezy… save your A-material for another record.
My snobby side wanted to write a really mean-spirited review, detailing all the hilarious reasons why nobody anywhere should listen to this album. But I’m not going to do that. The truth is, I don’t hate Gym Class Heroes. There are not many artists I can say that I truly hate. That’s why I’m no good at being a music critic. But even though I do not particularly enjoy this group’s brand of inoffensive pop-rap, and probably will not listen to them again until the day their next album is released, I do recognize their right to exist and even think that they serve a valuable purpose within the hip hop world. So I’m going to give them a low score, but I’m not going to say too many negative things about them.
Gym Class Heroes seem to have made their name through genre-hopping. They root themselves in a hip hop base and then, through the aforementioned live instrumentation, touch on a wide variety of styles that lead rock purists to refer to them as “rap that’s actually pretty good” and those who don’t know anything about music at all to refer to them as “musically adventurous.” “Blinded by the Sun” has a bit of a reggae feel to it and there is nothing even remotely hip hop about the straight-up emo rock of “Live a Little” and “No Place to Run.” “Home” begins with a whole bunch of guitar noodling before lead singer/rapper Travis McCoy jumps in and the group puts together what turns out to be a semi-enjoyable track. But the album’s prime WTF moment comes when “Live Forever”, a seven-minute plus ballad that I’m sure is being described by somebody as “touching,” ends in a couple minutes of soulful singing from Darryl Hall of Hall & Oates.
Lyrically speaking, The Quilt doesn’t have a lot of material worth writing home about. Some of the songs touch on emotional issues, such as the daddy tribute track “Like Father, Like Son (Papa’s Song)”, but McCoy lacks the thematic depth, lyrical cleverness, and linguistic ability to make very much compelling material. Though I suppose they do deserve credit for putting out an album with overly positive messages.
The most surprising aspect of The Quilt is how many major rap players lent their expertise to its making. For a group whose fan base probably identifies more with Fall Out Boy than with 50 Cent, Gym Class Heroes landed a respectable number of hip hop guests, including Lil’ Wayne, Busta Rhymes (whose album doesn’t Busta guest on these days?), and producers Cool & Dre. Additional production is provided by The-Dream and… Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump.
The Quilt is what it is. Gym Class Heroes are pop rap. They are more a part of the pop punk community than the hip hop community and for that the hip hop snobs will either hate them or pay them no attention. In thirty years rap music has progressed from Bronx street corners into every corner of the world, bringing hip hop culture with it. And with a global following comes splintering in which people from all different walks of life put their own spin on the culture, molding it to reflect their own personalities and world views. To keep this global culture moving forward, artists like Chuck D, Nas, and KRS-One must share their umbrella with groups like Gym Class Heroes, even if they don’t particularly enjoy their music.