If every song for grown-ups hinges it’s cred on it’s general proximity to sexual themes, failed romance, and a songwriter’s struggle with his/her religious upbringing (sometimes taking a break for a veiled political statement) then every kid’s album has it’s roots in lessons, friendship, animals, and, occasionally, the preschool drama of broken promises and smashed toys. There are a finite number of topics capable of being covered during the standard 35-minutes of a kiddie album, and the genre doesn’t generally afford the artistic luxury of the abstraction-ism of, say, a Wolf Parade or an Andrew Bird.
What separates one children’s musician from the next then are his or her musical chops, of course, but more importantly (probably) is the artist’s execution of these trampled lyrical ideas. To that end, Asheville’s Secret Agent 23 Skidoo has officially joined the elite group of kid’s acts (if he wasn’t there already after his debut “Easy”) that raise the level of wit, observation and style while still singing (or rapping) about the importance of telling the truth and why “being a friend is better than being a billionaire”.
On “Underground Playground”, the Asheville NC kid-hopper’s sophomore album, the beats have matured and the soundscapes are fuller thanks, in part, to a variety of horns that are sometimes sultry, sometimes punchy but always ideally suited for the mood 23 Skidoo is conjuring. There’s also some exquisitely placed & well-executed scratching, adding an authentic, old school hip hop vibe. Lyrically, Skidoo could be labeled as somewhat repetitive if one was so inclined (he does go to the friendship well often) and will occasional spit a line far to dependent upon a weak rhyme (“Believe it or not / they started hanging out sometimes / even a lot”), but honestly, the dude is darn near perfect as a slice-of-life kid-hop scribe. For proof, look no further than this gem from “Opposite Day”: “Next is lunch / and I can’t wait to share it / I take all my cookies and I trade for carrots / I cut my food with a spoon / I eat my soup with a fork / I cut my apple in half so I can chew on the core.”
I’ve never once heard a Stevie Wonder-quality chorus in a kindie album, that is until “Secret Handshake” came through my laptop’s speakers for the 1st time. It’s Alicia Keys-worthy, female-sung R&B hook plus Tor Hyams soulful piano licks equals one of the greatest songs ever about the glory of having a best friend. It also, at least as it rattles around in my ears, evokes the qualities of a great marriage. After all, your spouse should, ideally, be your best-ist friend ever, forever – whether you use pinky swears or not.
The story song “Once Upon a Rhyme” features another killer female-crooned hook and presents a different side of friendship – one of overcoming substantial differences with kindness and affection. Hidden deep down in the mix is a gorgeous, subtle keyboard and a bow being drawn ever so sweetly across the strings of a fiddle. One of my favorite lyrics on the album is here as well, it’s the exact point when common ground is found and kinship blossoms late in the tale: “I love it when fireworks explode / when the ground shakes / and the sky turns to gold.”
Even though physcadelia is not usually fodder for children’s music, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo spins a vivid dream into a kindie masterpiece with “13 O’Clock”. I’ll admit that this song (and it’s trippy, carnival, DayGlo video) is not for everyone. That said, if you dug what Busta Rhymes was doing visually years ago and find the thought of a chimpanzebra even remotely curious, you should get a kick out of this one. Watch the video for “13 O’Clock”:
The closing number, “Never Stop Asking”, is as much for kids as it is for 23 Skidoo himself and for us, the guardians of the leaders of the future. It’s a beautiful ode to parenthood and sets out to remind us, cleverly, that kids are smarter than us, not because of “time tables and math / more like keeping your mind able to laugh”. In the chorus, 23 Skidoo’s daughter Saki rhymes “Hi ho he / do you want to dance with me / let’s be a family”, which never fails to make me laugh. I think about all the times Mouse wants to play pretend family, which is pretty much everyday. I’m to pretend that I’m the dad, she is the little sister, the Bear plays big sis and Mom is, yep you guessed it – the Mom; off the charts on the cute-o-meter.
One of the big questions I had about Skidoo’s follow up to the surprisingly successful “Easy”, and it’s hit anthem “Gotta Be Me”, was: would there be another killer track, another obvious instant classic. The short answer is yes. Any one hit wonder fears can be trashed. “Secret Handshake” is as good, if not better than “Gotta Be Me”, and will age very, very well.
If there’s a knock against “Underground Playground”, it’s that the album could be 3-4 tracks shorter. But even at a hefty 1 hour it’s still one of the finest kindie albums of 2010. I can’t imagine hip hop for kids being any better or more genuine than Secret Agent 23 Skidoo’s “Underground Playground” – a deep, sensitive, funny and flawlessly constructed disc of inspiring, multi-layered kid-hop.
To call Secret Agent 23 Skidoo the finest kid-hop act in the world may be less of a compliment than it’s intended, kinda like being the valedictorian of summer school. The hip-hop-for-kids kingdom will eventually expand, but even when it does we’ll still know who sits upon the throne.
*Secret Agent 23 Skidoo’s “Underground Playground” was provided to OWTK for review. The opinions above are unbiased and true, no arm-twisting took place in the review process.