Classified – Handshakes and Middle Fingers
Record Label: Half Life
Release Date: April 12, 2011
I approached Handshakes and Middle Fingers, the new release from Canadian emcee Luke Boyd, a.k.a. Classified, from a direction that’s probably quite a bit different from most people. I was completely unaware of the notoriety he achieved in his homeland thanks to the nationalist, and somewhat cornball, single “Oh… Canada”, which he addresses right away on album’s opening track (“Am I a one-hit wonder? I don’t think I am.”). I merely remembered some of his past recordings being not entirely memorable but decent enough to warrant checking out the new shit. And thank goodness for that, as Handshakes is lacking absolutely nothing on the memorability front. Following up a novelty success is never an easy task; there’s the temptation to aim toward the same market for an easy cash-in (see: Weezer) as well as the urge to go the over-serious route in an attempt to change one’s image. Handshakes largely sidesteps these dangers. It’s a serious record, no doubt, socially conscious and worldly, but also self-reflective. It’s occasionally overbearing, but these moments are fleeting and all too easily forgiven. Perhaps most importantly, it’s also lavishly produced, and frankly a whole hell of a lot of fun to listen to.
In terms of sound, Handshakes is maximalist, occasionally theatrical, and maybe just a little overblown. I can’t help but compare its sonic palette to last year’s critically adored My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, though the more-is-better production strategy is where the similarities come to an abrupt halt. Unlike the egomaniacal Kanye West, Classified is more self-effacing than self-aggrandizing, as evidenced by the single “That Ain’t Classy”, a pretty direct affront to the extravagant red-carpet lifestyle espoused by others in his craft. On “Passion”, he strikes a sharp contrast with ass-chasing peers, offering , “I feel like a rap star. I go to sleep every night with a couple of girls, 'cause my daughters won't sleep in their own bed.” Like many of his contemporaries, Class makes no secret of his drug use, but his lyrics hardly celebrate or endorse stoned indulgence. “I ain’t as quick thinking as I once was,” he says of his deceased brain cells on “Intro: Ups and Downs”, and on “High Maintenance”, he sings, “I want to believe I don’t need to get high, but I got to have it,” detailing his contemplation to quit but his inability to go through with it. This type of lyrical groundedness could be a hindrance to popularity; hedonism makes the cash registers ring, especially in the hip-hop world. The personal, and often pessimistic nature—“They call me Mr. Negativity,” he raps at one point—of his musings also aren’t likely to endear him to the masses. As a pop-culture icon, Kanye West’s innermost thoughts are of public interest, but Classified’s, not so much. Which is a little discouraging, because change a few details here and there, and Class’s story probably isn’t different from many of ours, filled with insecurity, fear and lack of funds.
When tackling world events on “Danger Bay”, he perhaps plays his cards a bit too aggressively. Using news clips from the September 11th attacks, hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake and painting these events as some type of harbinger of the end-times is heavy-handed, to be sure. How long a tragedy like 9/11 can continue to be mined to generate an emotional response is questionable, but the spine-tingling that results when the broadcast is combined with the song’s huge cinematic sweep suggests the answer to that question is “for quite some time to come.” And while correlating these catastrophes with the apocalypse is a stretch, the concerns he expresses about hatred, hypocrisy and schadenfreude are more than relevant. And I’ll grant him a pass if only because it’s probably the only track whose subject matter is as larger-than-life as the sound of the record. Because, despite the often un-pop-friendly lyrics, Handshakes and Middle Fingers is first and foremost a brilliant pop album. Class lacks the worn-out Rolodex of potential guests boasted by big hip-hop stars—Brother Ali is most prominent artist featured here—but as he seems to have in life, he made the most out of what he had, turning in a record chock full of clever hooks, sharp lyricism and layers of joyous sound. And not least of all, the struggles he describes sound a whole lot like our own.