What a summer album should be

So it’s summer. It’s hot. I’m in Thailand right now, and sunny afternoons must be spent lounging under whirring fans. And my summer afternoon easy listening soundtrack? Travie McCoy’s new solo album Lazarus, out last month just in time to help us beat — or enjoy — the heat.

Travie McCoy, a polyethnic native of upstate New York, is best known as the rap vocalist front man for the usually light-hearted, occasionally cerebral pop band Gym Class Heroes. I really like Gym Class Heroes, and mostly because of Travie’s affable vocal charisma and broad-minded honesty.

Unlike a lot of rappers, Travie’s rhymes don’t feel effortless. On the contrary, they sound like he put a lot of thought and work into them. There are honest to goodness jokes in there, not just wordplay. There are flourishes in his style that sound more like spoken word or slam poetry. There are moments of recitation filled with surprising and convincing emotion.

Let me be clear on one thing, though. As talented a rapper as Travie is, this isn’t really technically a hip-hop album. It’s pop. Sometimes it does tilt heavily in the direction of hip-hop, but others it swings the other way, into alternative rock. That’s okay, I think, in part because Travie can handle the different styles (he can really sing, not just autotune sing like Lil Wayne), and in part because hip-hop and pop are entirely intertwined these days. But don’t worry about the genre ambiguity: all good summer music is a bit more poppy than its cool weather counterparts.

As a summer album, Lazarus hits a lot of the right notes. “Billionaire” featuring awesome singer Bruno Mars is an absolutely chill bit of whimsy, fantasising generously about all the admirable ways one might spend a billion dollars. “Akidagain” is guaranteed to evoke delightfully heartbreaking nostalgia, even in people who didn’t grow up in 90’s middle-class America. “We’ll Be Alright” and “After Midnight (It’ll Burn),” while not as addictive as recent party anthem staples by artists like Black Eyed Peas or Ke$ha, is still a perfectly serviceable hand-clapping club twister. That’s what summer is all about: lazy daydreams, fun in the sun and in the dark, and remembering the ups and downs of summers past.

But just like in his Gym Class Heroes days, Travie takes some more serious turns in this album. “Dr. Feel Good,” “Critical” and “The Manual,” while all fun and and bouncy, address the troubling ambiguities of trying to make it through daily life emotionally intact and evoke medical and psychiatric terminology that recalls Travies past struggles with pill addition — a subject he alludes to often, going back as far as Gym Class Heroes’ The Papercut Chronicles. “Superbad” is a triumphal alt rock road anthem, but the lyrics flow with subtextual undercurrents, dark and grim. In “Don’t Pretend” Travie punctuates his quivering verses with sniffles and sobs — as break up heartbreak songs go, this one is potent.

And that’s okay too, because summertime can just as easily be twisted by drama, angst, frustrations and redemption struggles as any other time of the year. After all, our problems don’t turn off when the beaches open, or for that matter when they close. So any good summer album will have a few lessons in it to carry you forward into the fall and the winter. Just like any good summer.

Travie McCoy is proving to be a talented and versatile solo artist, and Lazarus is an excellent album worth you time. Listen to some of it at http://www.myspace.com/traviemccoy.

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