Aja West

Trauma... Life in the E.R.

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It sounds like Aja West is aiming to be the Captain Beefheart of hip-hop, rapping in falsetto like some hyper eight-year-old one moment, jumping into a gravelly roughneck pose in the next, then adopting a radical electronically processed robotic monotone. And that is all in just the first three songs of his debut album, Trauma...Life in the E.R., the first release by the web-based record label, Mackrosoft.com, that he helped found and launch. Each of the remaining songs on the album similarly sound like a different persona, yet each one somehow manages to recognizably sound like Aja West. In one sense, his adoption of all those different vocal mannerisms is comical, and it is meant to be so. Like early Beastie Boys, his delivery is so punctuated by exaggeration and occasionally injected with ridiculousness that even if he were to rap about a serious subject, it would probably end up sounding at least half like a joke. The bad news is that Trauma is never serious, given to caricaturing all the forms (hip-hop, particularly) that it obviously loves, and, other than the Beastie Boys, takes its vocal cues from artists (Kid Rock, Korn, Limp Bizkit) who are best not copied. The good news is that Aja West is far more interesting than most of his lesser inspirations, and that his take on hip-hop, no matter how goofy the lyrics, is fearless and daring, certainly a progression for the form both sonically and thematically. Whether it is an avenue worthy of further exploration is debatable, but that Aja West has broken this ground says a lot for his audacity -- and a lot for the promise that Trauma displays. Songs such as "Trauma," with its prominent Leaders of the New School sample, the booty-funk of "The Girl's Look," the heavy-breathing "not breathing!," and hilariously apt "Age Ain't Ish" are endlessly intriguing listens. Each song -- the unsuccessful as well as successful -- is bursting at the seams with production ideas (Dust Brothers are an obvious influence) and packed beginning to end with pop cultural references and ridiculously clever (sometimes too clever for their own good) plays on words that mark Aja West as a progressive hip-hopper to certainly keep an eye on. Trauma is supposed to be a concept album of sorts about the emergency room experience, but that never really comes to a head. It is far too spotty and attention-deficit to accomplish that ambition, and at this point, Aja West's reach still dramatically exceeds his grasp. But once he learns what to reach for, look out. With Trauma he has already crafted, at the very least, a sensational party record.

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