Veteran Rapper Grizzly Bear Releases New Street Epic “Veckatimest”

It seems like 2006 was ages ago, doesn’t it? Back then, when semi-unknown thug Grizzly Bear released his first big hit single, “Knife,” it was easy to read the lyrics as a double-edged sword, referring both to his own struggles for survival in Brooklyn (clashing with Jay-Z in a notorious loose-leaf teahouse brawl) and to the excesses of cruelty taking place in Iraq: “with every blow / comes another lie.” This was, after all, seemingly only a minute since Grizzle had dropped his first street mixtape, Horn of Plenty, which had NYC headz bobbin’ but went mostly unnoticed elsewhere in the country. Staring up from a life of grim desolation, G.B. (which sometimes stands for Great Bellower or Gangsta Brawler, depending on when you ask Mr. Rossen) was the self-proclaimed “deep sea diver” who rhymed “a car, a house, and a dog / you got everything that I want,” and sounded ready to take those things by force.

You couldn’t get away from “Knife” in 2006; it had one of those enormous, dancefloor filling Beach Boy harmonies that brought the kids out in droves, whether they were living in the suburbs of Ohio (as I was, a mere struggling columnist for the Dayton Star Review) or riding in low-slung urban vehicles. He got his house — three houses, actually, including a yellow one for his mother, after which the album is named — and the cars and the dog. He was the epitome of cool, the untouchable street poet ready and willing to be the most famous man in America. But you could sense the tension seething in every line, the yearning for something already lost and left behind on the streets: “cords in a bind / knots that we make / fatal mistakes / let’s recreate an easier time.” “Easier,” the second single, was a disappointment commercially but an artistic triumph, a pure slice of the prophet still searching for that “easier time.” Little wonder that he stood in front of an enormous crowd at the Pitchfork Music Festival, saying “you are my people, sing this with me now” and then tearing through a savage cover of the Wu’s “Can It All Be So Simple.”

On his new album, though, atop glittering beats by DJ “Ed” Droste, Grizzle peers out from behind the windows of his fame and fortune to see a world that is passing him by. He sounds curiously resigned on tracks like “Two Weeks” (the period of time it takes to sell a pound of heroin) when he raps “Save up all the days / A routine malaise / Just like yesterday” to an old sampled recording of 4,000 people playing “The Blue Danube” on violin. This inevitably detracts from the force of the album — even when El Griz is back for another swing, full of braggadocio and proclaiming without regrets that “what I did I did,” he is still just going through the motions: “I’m gonna take a stab at this…checking it off my list.” It’s a long way from the visceral immediacy of his earlier stabbing songs, and by extension all the excesses of his “Knife” period: “Can’t you feel the knife?” or, even earlier, “A bear’s teeth extra sharp / that’ll cut you in the heart.”

In the strange, subterranean way of American wordsmithing, which is always re-forging of what has come before, we can hear a weary Grizzle echoing the words of that older, weary traveller, Robert Frost: “I trek alone back home / Shall I trek in the snow?” He is no longer channeling the rage of the streets; rather, he is looking to make an “About Face” in which the “fight for one” can be transformed into “faith with all.” But the bloody lessons of his youth can hardly be unlearned so quickly; he does, indeed, have miles to go before he sleeps. The album’s closing number, “Foreground” begins with a sample of Robert DeNiro yelling “They called me an animal. I’m not an animal!” While the kids may tune out the man behind the bear, Veckatimest shows a way, way more mature Rossen coming to grips with the cyclical nature of violence, which is only a “foreground” to the real villainy happening in his beloved city, behind the scenes, where the streets are bought and sold by those who will gladly “take on another Shaft” (“Foreground”) just to watch him die.