Los Angeles rapper Pigeon John is at the point in his career where pressure is minimal. Over the course of the past 16 years, John has been making a name for himself amongst the hip hop underground as a part of various groups and projects, but now, six full length albums into his solo career, he’s proven himself an innovative artist and remarkable solo performer.
Pigeon John is a veteran to the rap game – a man who takes his time in between releases, isn’t afraid to experiment and knows how to stay fresh, even while paying respect to the genre’s past. This mixture of new and old, fresh yet familiar, is what makes his newest album, Encino Man, such a joy.
In truth, Encino Man is the logical progression from John’s 2010 album Dragon Slayer – an album with clear pop sensibility that landed his songs everywhere from popular television shows to Volkswagen and Taco Bell commercials.
Like Dragon Slayer, Encino Man is produced by Hervé Salters. The two work together so well at this point, that it’s hard to imagine their pairing ever eliciting a flop. The album is chock full of throwback pop sounds, weird instrumentation, distorted bass lines and plenty of danceable moments. It’s an old-school pop album living in the present day indie hip hop scene.
Album opener and single “Champaign On My Shoes” is a bumping, fuzzy track about relationship travails, much akin to “Money Back Guarantee” from Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party. “All the Roads” is a light, but heavily confessional track that mirrors Dragon Slayer’s “Before We’re Gone”. “Oh Yeah” and “Ready to Go” are upbeat pop numbers that harken back to “The Bomb” and are surely just as infectious.
Even as John uses his more recent successes to expand his sound while retaining his identity, he’s also willing to reach back much further. “It’s On Tonight” featuring Sareem Poems is a flashback to their L.A. Symphony days, sounding like it was pulled straight from The End is Now or Call it What You Want. It also features some of the dopest verses of John’s career.
Likewise, “Go Shopping”, another L.A. Symphony reunion track featuring Great Jason, goes hard with an 80s influence. “Boomerang” and “I Believe It” move at a slower pace with minimalist production, but they’re sure to have you singing along.
Subject matter hits on the usual suspects – girls, a dash of self-doubt, personal struggles, and managing to have a good time amidst all of it. According to John, Encino Man was influenced by in part by the aftermath of divorce, and although the pain is still present, it’s clear that this version of Pigeon John is the most confident that he’s ever been.
Above all else, this is what sets Encino Man apart from John’s past work. Even with all of the nods to the past and the continuation of an already established sound, Encino Man sounds new simply because John himself sounds new. Having gripped to a persona laced with self-deprecation, self-doubt and self-loathing, this new confidence and self-assurance marks a sheer turn and its impact on John’s sound is evident.
This 2014 version of Pigeon John truly sounds happy to be himself. Even when the beats are a little bit too goofy, even when the one-liners are a little bit too cheesy, he’s able to pull it off with the poise of a veteran. Encino Man is truly a fun record and an album that showcases the ever-continual growth of one of underground hip hop’s true trendsetters.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.