Gym Class Heroes' greatest strength, their fence straddling of genres, often doubles as their greatest weakness. Rap heads can't stand them and punk kids tend to not give them a chance. As a fan of live instrumentation in rap music and the "hip-hop band" mentality, I was very careful not to pigeonhole them, as easy at it would be considering their record label and cohorts. Unfortunately, their latest album, As Cruel as School Children, reveals just how deserving of their in-betweener reputation they are, both in terms of their genre and their abilities as songwriters.
The album starts off on a somber note with "1st Period: The Queen and I," a song about an alcoholic girlfriend/acquaintance and the lead singer's reluctance to help her. It's an interesting choice to start the album as its verses are austere instrumentally, but it does show off lead singer/rapper Travis McCoy's ability to change flows on a dime. It doesn't exactly "get the party started." While there is no utter trainwreck of a song on this album like "Taxi Driver" from their previous album, there is plenty of cringe-worthy material to be found. The most unfortunate of these is probably "3rd Period: New Friend Request," a MySpace themed song about a girl who the lead singer courts over MySpace. Now, while the idea of this song is ridiculous in itself, Travis doesn't let that stop him from saying some especially lame things. "You said you weren't impressed by lame dudes with no game / They're all the same trying to get your instant messaging name." This is the stuff of eighth graders. But the worst part of this song is the fact that it has a beat that is absolutely contagious and it shows an incredible amount of promise with a catchy chorus that you'll hate yourself for humming all day. The juxtaposition of the terrible and, at times, corny lyrical content against the rest of the song is downright depressing. The best we can hope for is that MTV doesn't find out about this song. The lyrics also turn "4th Period: Clothes Off," a very clever reworking of Jermaine Stewart's "We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off," into a standard ditty about macking on girls. It sounds like Atmosphere doing their best Ludacris impression, if for some reason you're into that sort of thing.
Like almost all of their "Hipster Hop" predecessors, Gym Class Heroes are at their best when they come off as honest and sincere. "Sloppy Love Jingle Scene 1-3", three a capella songs, that I suppose are pseudo-freestyles, showcase this well. He rambles out lines with very little care for rhyme meter like "That's when she made an offer that I couldn't refuse / And chills went up my legs like Samoan tattoos." The Ghostface Killah-style train of thought nature of these songs makes it much easier to excuse any lyrical missteps, unlike in the rest of the overproduced tracks on the album. The sing-song vibe of "6th Period: Viva La White Girl" does a bit of shameless Warren G aping, but is very passable as the closest thing to an emo slowjam you're likely to hear for awhile. As ballyhooed as Travis' rapping ability is, it's surprising that some of the best moments on this album comes when he does a bit of "I'm not really a singer" singing.
We'll do whatever you want to.Travis McCoy's lush glamorization of drug usage conveys his message of debauchery perfectly. A 15-year-old in tight pants is planning on using this song to get into his girlfriend's pants as we speak.
Girl I'll make a movie star of you.
You know that I could,
If you let me be your Hollywood.
We'll get high, and hide.
We are lovers to the glamorous,
white girl so fine.
Going up on the downtown line.
This is an album that sounds like it that desperately wants to be taken seriously by the hip-hop underground as well as the emo crowd, but spends too much time pandering to their current fans. And while there's nothing wrong with playing music for your fans, the output's quality in this case just isn't high enough to garner respect from sophisticated listeners. All the style in the world can't make up for the lack of substance and progression in this album. I expect that as the band matures and drops the lame guest appearances (Patrick Stump and William Beckett of Fall Out Boy and the Academy Is..., respectively, both appear on the album), we could get a stellar album out of these guys. Until then, we're left with another mess of an album that doesn't show much but potential.